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

Gunter Wand, Berliner Philharmoniker. RCA 09026 68839-2.

Beethoven, Bruckner, and Brahms. In the years since conductor and composer Gunter Wand (1912-2002) first broke onto the recording scene some twenty years before he made the present album and already then a man advanced in age, he had recorded the three composers I mentioned earlier two or three times apiece. Practice makes perfect, I suppose. In the case of Wand, who was approaching ninety when he made the recording under review, this rendition of Bruckner's Fourth Symphony bears the mark of authority borne of obvious experience. By then, the fellow had been conducting it for over sixty years; he apparently learned something about it along the way. It is, in fact, a totally absorbing and uplifting performance.

Bruckner dubbed the Fourth Symphony "Romantic" because he wanted people to appreciate its connection with nature and its attendant depth of emotion. Later, Bruckner added even more descriptive phrases to help sell the work--"Knights bursting into the open astride proud steeds," that sort of thing--but the appellation "Romantic" is quite enough. The piece is almost entirely suggestive, not literal, anyhow.

Most important, this is the way Wand presents it. His interpretation is very broad, dramatic, and intense, yet it is not without excitement, too, especially in the finale, where it counts. The grand climaxes are filled with an eloquent drive, and the softest passages convey a feeling of deep spirituality. As always, the Berlin Philharmonic play spectacularly.

Gunter Wand
RCA made the recording in the Philharmonie in 1998, the digital sonics typical of RCA's products in the late Nineties: Velvety smooth, with very wide dynamics and excellent mid bass. There is sparse deep bass, however; not much front-to-back imaging; some occasional spotlighting of individual instruments; and at times a highlighting of whole orchestral sections.

RCA captured the performance live, as I've said, which was the way Wand preferred it for all of the last recordings he made, affording him, I assume, greater spontaneity despite intermittent audience noise. For the most part the recording is reasonably quiet, except during softer moments, between movements, and for a single obtrusive cough about a quarter of the way into the slow second movement. It caught me so off guard I thought it was a sound outside my house; I had to play it back several times to confirm its existence on the disc and not in my yard. Otherwise, the recording carries the weight necessary to complement the power of Wand's realization.

Compared to the three older classics I had on hand at the time--Klemperer (EMI), Jochum (DG), and Bohm (Decca)--Wand fits right in. His performance has the same feeling of rightness, although it is perhaps closer to Bohm than the other two. Klemperer is still the more magisterial and architecturally sound, and Jochum the more mysterious. But Bohm and Wand take us to equally lofty heights without being quite so idiosyncratic.

Wand's is certainly among the best recordings one can buy of Bruckner's most popular symphony, and if you like the conductor's style and can tolerate the minor inconveniences of the live sound, it's something to consider.


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

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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