Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 (CD review)

Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI 0946 3 84723 2.

Like most conductors and record companies, Sir Simon Rattle and EMI continue to record much of their new material live. I suppose it has to do with finances, studio time being so expensive these days, although the artists would probably claim it has to do with capturing the spirit of the moment and all. Maybe, but you can't blame the companies involved for wanting to get live audiences to subsidize their recorded performances.

Oh, well, it does no serious harm. The sound is still all right, and you don't hear a noise from the listeners. EMI have even edited out the applause at the end, thankfully. Still, I couldn't help feeling that multiple run-throughs in the studio and subsequent judicious edits might have resulted in a more satisfying performance.

Anton Bruckner's Fourth Symphony was his first really successful big-scale work, but it didn't come easy. His first three symphonies were greeted with a lukewarm response, and it took him over half a dozen years to revise and work out the Fourth. Fortunately, when he did finally premiere it 1881, the public loved it, as listeners have loved it ever since. Bruckner himself nicknamed it "Romantic," and it became Bruckner's only program symphony. The composer tells us what each movement is supposed to represent, from knights riding out of a medieval castle at dawn to the sounds of the forest and birds, to a hunt, complete with horn calls, finally culminating in brilliant summary. The symphony easily communicates a grandeur and nobility of spirit, and Bruckner was, above all, a profoundly spiritual man, his music clearly illustrating this spirituality.

I wish I could say that Rattle's reading expresses all of Bruckner's spiritual fervor and picturesque tone painting, but, alas, for me it accomplishes only half the job. The first movement, with its knights galloping out into the mists, moved me not at all. In fact, I found it somewhat dull, not because Rattle takes it any slower than some other conductors but because he seems to be consciously trying too hard to make the music seem exalted, which the music can nicely do on its own, thank you. That goes for the second movement, Bruckner's tribute to Wagner's "Forest Murmurs," which under Rattle seems simply to go on forever. But then things pick up in the delightful Scherzo hunt, which contains genuine excitement, followed by a magnificently shaped Finale. So, perhaps if you don't mind half a great performance, or if you just love Rattle, you might be interested in this new release.

EMI recorded the sound in Berlin's Philharmonie during three nights of concerts in October, 2006. Engineer Mike Clements does a decent job under the circumstances, capturing a wide stereo spread and a reasonably good hall acoustic. However, don't expect the kind of transparency or detail you might hear in a good studio recording. I found too much upper-bass warmth and too much upper-midrange presence, with not quite enough information in the center of the tonal spectrum to avoid the impression of the audio being all highs and lows. Again, oh, well....

Adapted from a review the author originally published in the $ensible Sound magazine.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa