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

Marek Janowski, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. PentaTone PTC 5186 450.

With the Fourth Symphony Maestro Marek Janowski and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (Orchestra of French-speaking Switzerland) complete their recordings of the complete Bruckner symphonies. The question at this point, I suppose, is why? If this performance of the Fourth Symphony is any indication, the affair seems rather ordinary. I mean no disrespect, but there is little about Janowski’s interpretation or the orchestra’s playing that appears any better or any different than most anybody else’s, and I can think of at least half a dozen other recordings of the Fourth I like better. Be that as it may, Janowski’s Fourth is competent almost to the letter, so there is little to complain about. If you already own his other recordings in the series of nine symphonies, you will no doubt enjoy this final installment as well.

Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) wrote his Symphony No. 4 “Romantic” in E flat major in 1874, revising it several times before his death. (Janowski chose to record the Nowak edition of the 1878-80 revision). The symphony became probably the Austrian composer’s most-popular piece of music, due largely to its abundance of Romantic, dramatic, programmatic, and spiritual touches. However, there are so many 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), Georg Tintner and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Naxos), and the like, it would take a very distinguished newcomer to make a dent in the competition. For me, Maestro Janowski doesn’t quite make it to the top of the pile.

Anyway, as you may 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 illustrate the point, with the Fourth Symphony being the most programmatic of all.

In the first movement, we have Bruckner's vision of Nature, and his several scenic landscapes remind us of how much the composer admired both Beethoven and Wagner. Janowski captures the opening grandeur of the music pretty well, although he doesn't transition into the more tranquil material like the "Magic of the Forest" and "Birdsong" as well as I've heard from other conductors. With Janowski it's more all of a piece. Perhaps that was his intent, intentionally to minimize the contrasting elements of the first movement and make the music more seamless. I'm not sure that was Bruckner's intent, but I can't say I disliked it. Janowski does end the movement on a powerful note, however, which helps make up for any possible laxness earlier.

The second-movement Andante should sound at least vaguely elegiac, halfway between a nocturne and a march, at a slow but comfortably moderate pace (quasi Allegretto). Janowski takes it in leisurely fashion, allowing full expression to the lyrical elements yet rather losing a bit of forward impetus in the process. The music never quite attains the level of spiritual expression it should.

Following that we find a lively Scherzo, which Bruckner teasingly called “a rabbit hunt,” which should build a proper momentum as it progresses. Here, the conductor does go full bore, appropriately, the horns blasting away splendidly. And this time, Janowski does point up the movement's contrasts in sharp relief. The orchestra, too, sounds fine, if a little thin in the overall richness department. I doubt anyone would mistake this ensemble for the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonics, but it does its job with a minimum of fuss.

Lastly, in the Finale, as with the Scherzo, Bruckner again takes the heroic opening theme and the more-idyllic second subject and reworks them into his closing statement, although he keeps it more cheerful. As though finally warming to the subject, Janowski gives the finale a grand send-off. It nicely unifies the previously executed themes without any too-obvious references or backward glances. It's Janowski's Finale that highlights the performance, and he brings the symphony to a close in a swirl of powerful, loud and quiet, motifs. Unfortunately for me, I still found the movement too long for my liking with its never-ending succession of false climaxes, and not even Janowski could ameliorate that condition.

As I say, Janowski's performance is perfectly serviceable, if not always inspiring.

Producer Job Maarse and engineers Erdo Groot and Roger de Schot recorded the symphony in Victoria Hall, Geneva, Switzerland, October 2012. The disc comes in a hybrid Super Audio Compact Disc stereo/multichannel format, playable in stereo on any ordinary CD player and in stereo and multichannel from a SACD player. The sound has a good sense of ambient bloom, even in the SACD two-channel layer to which I listened. I would imagine the sound to open up even further in multichannel. There is also a good impact to the dynamics and a fairly wide stereo spread. Midrange transparency, frequency extremes, and orchestral depth, while not quite being in the audiophile range, are more than adequate.

JJP

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