I may be the only the person left on the planet who is not 100% enamoured of live recordings. I keep reading reviews of live recorded performances that say how wonderful the sound is, how the audio engineers should be nominated for Grammys, and so forth. Sorry; I don't hear it. Even when a live recording is done well, as this one is with the applause edited out, I often find the microphones too close, the sound too mechanical and flat, and audience presence still too noticeable, especially during quiet moments. Yes, I understand the economic needs for recording live, and I respect a conductor's desire to capture the spontaneity of a live performance; but it doesn't mean I have to like the sound, which in almost every case would have been better if done in a studio.
Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons is, as of 2018, the Music Director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, one of the oldest and most prestigious orchestras in the world. In 2017 Maestro Nelsons embarked on a Bruckner symphony cycle with the Gewandhaus players, and the current Fourth Symphony is the third such effort (following the Third and Seventh Symphonies). Critics received his previous releases favorably, and I see no reason why they wouldn't do the same here. It's a mature account of what is possibly Bruckner most-popular music.
Anton Bruckner (1824-1896), Austrian composer and organist, wrote the Symphony No. 4 in E flat major "Romantic" in 1874, revising it several times before his death. (Maestro Nelsons uses the familiar 1878-80 revision edited by Leopold Nowak in 1953). No doubt, audiences like the work's abundance of Romantic, programmatic qualities. Bruckner was a deeply spiritual man, and his symphonies illustrate the point. The composer goes further by telling us what each of the symphony's 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 finally a brilliant culminating summation.
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, according to the composer, "...after a full night's sleep the day is announced by the horn." Other authorities have argued that the composer wanted us to see a morning breaking, the mists giving way to dawn around a medieval castle, and an army of knights bursting out from the castle gates in a blaze of glory. Whatever, Nelsons does a good job establishing the atmosphere and maintaining the mystery of the score, accenting the mystical side of the music rather than the purely programmatic.
The second-movement Andante is a serenade, sometimes described as representing a young lad's amorous but ultimately hopeless longings and expressions. Nelsons, however, says that "This movement is like a song or a prayer" and it reveals "a genuine, intimate connection with God." Fair enough. I've always thought it sounded elegiac, halfway between a nocturne and a funeral march, the composer indicating he wanted something between a moderately slow but still comfortably forward pace (Andante quasi Allegretto). Nelsons, in an apparent effort to accommodate his own view of things, adopts a very slow tempo for it, more like an adagio. Where most conductors take about thirteen or fourteen minutes to cover the movement, Nelsons goes over seventeen. The listener may either appreciate the added beauty or find the length interminable. I can't say I preferred it over more traditional readings, but, then, I may simply have to get used to it.
The lively third-movement Scherzo Bruckner teasingly called "a rabbit hunt," and it should build a proper momentum as it goes forward. I thought Nelsons was at his best here. The music rollicks.
The Finale opens with a heroic theme, then works its way into a more idyllic second subject, eventually reworking both themes into a closing statement. This movement begins rather ominously, with dark clouds overhead, leading to a thunderstorm; however, the storm soon breaks and gives way to variations on the symphony's heroic opening music and a summation of all the parts. If you're wondering what it means, not even Bruckner was sure. He said, "...even I myself can't say what I was thinking about at the time."
Nelsons tells us that "The music is like a glimpse of heaven," which may explain why he takes the final movement so deliberately. As with the second movement, the listener may enjoy the conductor's pace or find it too fragmented or sluggish. I would have liked a bit smoother forward progress and a bit more resolute determination.
Along with the symphony is the piece that opens the program, Richard Wagner's Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin, premiered in 1850. Nelsons, of course, wants us to see (hear) for ourselves the influence of Wagner's music on Bruckner, particularly the ethereal, religious elements, so, given his approach to the symphony, it's not a bad way to begin things. He handles it well.
Executive producer Sid McLauchlan and recording producer and engineer Everett Porter recorded the music live at the Gewandhaus Leipzig in May 2017. As I said at the start, one can take or leave a live recording. My own prejudice is to leave it, even when done as well as here. Like most other live recordings, in this one the microphones are a little close, resulting on the positive side in a reasonably detailed response with very wide dynamics and on the negative side a somewhat forward sound picture with an emphasis on the upper midrange and some odd instrumental relationships. Take the opening of the symphony, for instance. The horn solo appears admirably well focused, while one can barely hear the orchestral accompaniment. Otherwise, the sound is fairly warm (if a tad hard, edgy, and pinched in louder passages), ambient, and realistic. Still, it doesn't quite capture the Gewandhaus's characteristically dark, golden glow as well as I've heard it in many studio productions.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: