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.
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: