Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 “Romantic” (CD review)

Philippe Herreweghe, Orchestre des Champs-Elysees. Harmonia Mundi HMG 501921.

The Symphony No. 4 “Romantic” in E flat major by Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) is probably the Austrian composer most-popular piece of music. This is in no small part because of its abundance of Romantic, dramatic, programmatic, and spiritual touches. The thing is, there are already about 800 different recordings of it available, some of them by very prominent conductors and orchestras like Eugen Jochum and the Berlin Philharmonic (DG), Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (DG), Gunther Wand and the Berlin Philharmonic (RCA), Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI), Karl Bohm and the Vienna Philharmonic (Decca), and Georg Tintner and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Naxos). So, what might compel a listener to try this rerelease from Philippe Herreweghe and his Orchestre des Champs-Elysees?

Well, for one thing the listener might be an avid collector of all things Bruckner and want every recording of every piece of music the man ever wrote. Fair enough.

More important for the rest of us, however, is that Herreweghe’s recording has a claim to being at least one of the most historically accurate performances ever recorded. In the words of the ensemble itself, “The Orchestre des Champs-Elysees is devoted to the performance of music written from the mid XVIII to the early XX centuries (Haydn-Mahler) played on the instruments that existed during the composer's lifetime.” Meaning they play on period instruments and, insofar as they can, play in a historically informed manner.

The thing is, Bruckner initially wrote his symphony in 1874, which comes very close, within a quarter century or so, of the modern age. Could there really be an advantage to hearing the work played on period instruments and in a period style? Let’s look at a history of the symphony’s multiple revisions for a start. Bruckner composed the original version in 1874, as I say. Then he revised parts of it in 1877-78, among other things writing an entirely new Scherzo. In 1879-80 he again revised the Finale. In 1881 he premiered the revised version, but he quickly added a few more corrections before the second performance. In 1887-88 conductor Ferdinand Lowe prepared the proofs for publication, but these differed considerably from Bruckner’s autograph score; Bruckner accepted them anyway. By the time of the symphony’s actual publication, it differed substantially from Bruckner’s initial vision. Various revised scores have appeared over the years, but it is the 1878 version, which Bruckner regarded as the only valid one, that Herreweghe performs here.

Now, on to the recording. As we have come to expect from Herreweghe and his period forces, the reading is quite good. It just take a while for one to get used to it. By that, I mean Herreweghe’s rendering sounds a bit thinner, harsher, and less grandiloquent than most other recordings. That’s understandable, considering the ensemble he uses, with the period instruments. Still, there is much to enjoy in his rendition.

As you recall, the composer tells us what each of the movements represents, from knights riding out of a medieval castle through the mists of dawn to the sounds of the forest and birds, to a funeral, then a hunt, complete with horn calls, and then a brilliant culminating summation. Bruckner was a profoundly spiritual man, and his symphonies all illustrate the point, with the Fourth Symphony being the most programmatic of all.

In the first movement, Herreweghe’s manner can be a bit strict when it comes to nuances, and he could better characterize those opening mists. Nevertheless, the conductor does a good job communicating Bruckner's vision of Nature and his several scenic landscapes, reminding us of how much the composer admired both Beethoven and Wagner. He captures the heroic features of the first subject in lively, if not so grand, style; and he goes on to a pleasant statement of the ensuing, more peaceful, secondary theme.

The second-movement Andante should sound at least vaguely elegiac. Herreweghe takes this section, halfway between a nocturne and a march, at a slow but comfortable pace, without making it drag on as we sometimes hear. Even if he tends to lose a little momentum toward the middle, he makes up for it with the beauty and vitality of the opening and closing passages.

Following that we find a vigorous Scherzo, which Bruckner teasingly called “a rabbit hunt,” building a proper momentum as it progresses. The hunt and the hunters' meal come off colorfully under Herreweghe, with the conductor providing plenty of vigor to the affair.

Lastly, in the Finale, as with the Scherzo, Bruckner would again take the heroic opening theme and the more-idyllic second subject and rework them into his closing statement. Herreweghe handles them well, conveniently ensuring they don't appear too redundant by this time. Perhaps, too, Bruckner knew what he was up to reducing the more-obvious repetition of material from earlier in the symphony and keeping it more cheerful. Herreweghe steers a middle ground between optimism and tragedy, the light and dark side of the composer. The movement still seems to me too long, but at least Herreweghe makes it more provocative and exciting than some other conductors.

As you become more accustomed to Herreweghe's historical approach and historical instruments, the more you may come to appreciate his Bruckner Fourth. While I could not recommend the recording as the only one a person should own, there is no reason a person shouldn't have Herreweghe's account available as a feasible alternative to the bigger, grander recordings from Jochum, Klemperer, Bohm, Wand, and the rest of the more-modern interpreters. 

Harmonia Mundi recorded the music at the Auditorium de Dijon, France, in October 2005, and the company rereleased it in its present form in 2013. The sound is a bit too warm, soft, fuzzy, and reverberant for my taste, but it also appears pretty natural to a big acoustic space. In addition, the sound displays a wide dynamic range, so it starts off very softly and builds to a huge crescendo in the opening minute or two. It's fairly satisfying, if not entirely as transparent as it could be. Also, be aware that the period instruments are not going to sound as smooth as today's modern ones, so you have that to adjust to them as well, the upper midrange being a tad edgy. However, some solid, well-defined transient impact helps to make us forget many of the recording’s minor shortcomings.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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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.

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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