The first thing you need to know is that any time you see the name Reference Recordings on a disc, you know you're going to get something pretty good. The second thing you need to know is that the present disc is a part of their "Fresh!" series, meaning the usual Reference Recordings team did not make it; RR is only helping to distribute and promote it. The third thing you need to know is that the production team that did make it recorded it live. Depending on your attitude toward live recordings, you may want to stop right there. This one, though, is, as I say, pretty good.
So, the album's subject matter is the Fourth Symphony, the "Romantic" Symphony, of Austrian composer and organist Anton Bruckner (1824-1896). It is possibly the most-popular piece of music Bruckner wrote, which means there is a surplus of competing recordings of it in the marketplace. The question is what makes this one by Maestro Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra any better than those from Klemperer and the Philharmonia (EMI), Bohm and Vienna Philharmonic (Decca), Jochum and the Berlin Philharmonic (DG) or Dresden State Orchestra (EMI), Wand and the Berlin Philharmonic (RCA), Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (DG), Tintner and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Naxos), to name a few of my favorites, or any number of others. That's what we'll explore.
Bruckner wrote his Symphony No. 4 in E flat major "Romantic" in 1874, revising it several times before his death. (Honeck uses the Nowak edition of the 1878-80 revision). The symphony's popularity is due largely to its abundance of Romantic, programmatic, dramatic, and spiritual qualities, which Maestro Honeck plays to the fullest 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.
The first movement offers Bruckner's vision of Nature, and his several scenic landscapes should remind us of how much the composer admired both Beethoven and Wagner. In the opening movement Bruckner wants us to see a morning breaking, the mists around a medieval castle-city finally giving way to dawn, whereupon that army of knights I mentioned above burst forth from the gates in a blaze of glory. Honeck does a pretty good job creating these mists, taking the first section slowly and deliberately. Then, he lets loose the big, grand theme quite energetically. Bruckner's continuous alternation of fast and slow passages can sometimes appear repetitious, but Honeck manages to transition evenly from one segment to the next, with a good control in both the lyrical elements and the more-momentous outbursts. It works out well.
The second-movement Andante is a serenade, night music representing a young lad's amorous but ultimately hopeless longings and expressions. To me, it always sounds vaguely elegiac, halfway between a nocturne and a march, the composer indicating he wanted a slow but comfortably moderate pace (quasi Allegretto). Here, Honeck coaxes some lovely sounds from the violas, providing the music a lonely kind of melancholy. The conductor takes it in perhaps a more leisurely fashion than I'm used to, yet it allows full expression of the lyrical elements (if losing a bit of forward impetus in the process). The result is that the music never quite attains the level of spiritual expression it could.
Then, there's the Finale, in which, as with the Scherzo, Bruckner again opens with a heroic theme, works into a more-idyllic second subject, and reworks them both into a closing statement. This movement begins rather ominously, with dark clouds overhead, which lead before long to a thunderstorm; however, the storm eventually breaks and gives way to variations on the symphony's heroic opening theme. Given the scope of the finale, Honeck has his hands full yet does a reasonably good job keeping the music flowing forward and the listener entertained (and not wondering when, in fact, the thing is finally going to end). Unfortunately for me, I still found the movement too long for my liking with its never-ending succession of false climaxes, and not even Honeck could quite warm me up to it.
Honeck is capable conductor, and while the present Bruckner performance may not go directly to the top of my list of favorite interpretations, it certainly places high. His approach to the Fourth Symphony is as pictorial, as emotional, and as tuneful as any you'll find, even if it's sometimes a little more leisurely than some competing versions and just misses their epic grandeur.
Producer and editor Dirk Sobotka, balancing and mastering engineer Mark Donahue, and recording engineer John Newton of Soundmirror, Boston made the album live at Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in December 2013. They made the album for hybrid SACD playback, too, meaning you can play it in multichannel SACD or two-channel SACD (to which I listened) through an SACD player or in two-channel stereo through a regular CD player.
In two-channel SACD you'll find a very wide dynamic range, with the softest notes barely audible and the loudest notes almost overpowering. For the audiophile, this is a joy; for the casual listener, it may present a problem adjusting the volume setting for a compromise position that's realistic, listenable, and enjoyable. Nevertheless, once one settles in, one finds good, comfortable sound, a little forward and bright at the highest levels but generally warm and smooth, with firm body, a mildly resonant ambience, and fairly sharp definition. Now, if it weren't for that darned audience that always seems present. Thankfully, though, the engineers have edited out any concluding applause, albeit at the expense of the final note not quite fading out for as long it could.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: