Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 "Romantic" (CD review)

Valery Gergiev, Munich Philharmonic. Munchner Philharmoniker MPHL0002.

The album's booklet notes begin with German composer Hans Pfitzner's now-famous remark that Bruckner wrote only one symphony but wrote it nine times in all. That may not be entirely true as one could say the same thing about any number of composers, like most of Wagner and Vivaldi and the early symphonies of Haydn and Mozart. Nonetheless, I suppose, there is a point to the remark, namely that Bruckner did have a uniquely personal, spiritually Romantic musical style that he repeated in most of his symphonies. If that is the case, then there was probably no better example of it than his Fourth Symphony, possibly his most-popular work.

Austrian composer and organist Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) wrote his Symphony No. 4 in E flat major "Romantic" in 1874, revising it several times before his death. (Here, conductor Valery Gergiev uses the 1878-80 revision edited by Leopold Nowak in 1953). The work's popularity no doubt stems largely from its abundance of Romantic, programmatic qualities, which Maestro Gergiev plays with a melodramatic fullness. Bruckner was a profoundly spiritual man, and his symphonies illustrate the point. Plus, you may recall that the composer tells us what each of the movements in the symphony 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 finally a brilliant culminating summation.

The question, though, is not if or why people like the Fourth Symphony nor what the symphony is "about." The question is whether Maestro Gergiev brings to his performance anything new, anything we haven't heard before, anything that might set it apart from the many fine recordings that have come before it. After all, we already have performances by Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI), Karl Bohm and Vienna Philharmonic (Decca), Eugen Jochum with both the Berlin Philharmonic (DG) and the Dresden State Orchestra (EMI), Gunther Wand and the Berlin Philharmonic (RCA), Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (DG), and Georg Tintner and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Naxos), to name a few.

My answer to the above question about Gergiev is, well, maybe not. Let's take a look.

In the first movement Bruckner offers us a vision of Nature, and the composer's several scenic landscapes should remind us of how much Bruckner admired Beethoven and Wagner. Here, composer wants us to see a morning breaking, the mists around a medieval castle giving way to dawn, whereupon an army of knights bursts forth from the castle gates in a blaze of glory. In this first section, Gergiev does what he does best: he gives us a highly theatrical reading. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of the spiritual majesty Bruckner seems to have intended, either, just the theatrics of the programmatic music.

Valery Gergiev
The second-movement Andante is a serenade--night music that represents in this instance a young lad's amorous but ultimately hopeless longings and expressions. I've always thought it sounded elegiac, halfway between a nocturne and a funeral march, the composer indicating he wanted a slow but comfortably moderate pace (quasi Allegretto). Here's the thing, though: I'm not sure Gergiev really gives us a "comfortably moderate pace." It's more like a slow dirge, and it appears to represent not so much a lad's hopeless amorous longings as it does his total defeat at the hands of his would-be lover.

Bruckner teasingly called the lively third-movement Scherzo "a rabbit hunt," and it should build a proper momentum as it goes forward. It's in this faster section that I found Gergiev most at home, perhaps the livelier spirits inspiring him. It moves along with high good cheer, and the Munich players seem to delight in it.

The Finale, which like the Scherzo opens with a heroic theme, works its way into a more-idyllic second subject and then reworks them both into a closing statement. This movement begins rather ominously, with dark clouds overhead, leading before long to a thunderstorm; however, the storm eventually breaks and gives way to variations on the symphony's heroic opening theme and a summation of all the parts. If you're wondering what it means, even Bruckner himself was at something of a loss when asked. He said, "...even I myself can't say what I was thinking about at the time." Whatever, Gergiev handles it about as he did the first movement, emphasizing the dramatic contrasts at the expense of any refined, high-flown ethereal qualities. It's a fairly direct reading, then, mostly serious, leaning to the sullen side, slightly slow and calculated, and highly theatrical. If that's the way you view Bruckner, Gergiev is your man.

Producer Johannes Muller and engineer Gerald Junge recorded the music at the Gasteig Culture Center, Munich in September 2015. The first thing one notices about the recording is that it displays an enormous dynamic range. It will start very softly and build to huge climaxes. This is good; it's what happens in live music, even though it annoys some home listeners. So, when it begins, avoid the temptation to turn it up, or the volume may knock you out of your seat. Also good are the sound of the hall itself, a mild ambient bloom, and the stereo spread and depth.

Not so good, however, is that the sound isn't exactly the most transparent. In fact, there's a slight veil over the proceedings, and detailing that we might want to hear is not always present. There are some odd pre-echoes, too, as well as a small degree of fuzziness in the upper frequencies. So, you get a big, wide, somewhat dark, soft, shrouded sound that makes the recording seem as though you were listening from a farther distance away from the orchestra than you might like.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa