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

Esa-Pekka Salonen, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Sony SK 63301.

Bruckner tried to write a literary program to go with his Fourth Symphony. For the First Movement he wrote: "A citadel of the Middle Ages. Daybreak. Reveille is sounded from the tower. The gates open. Knights on proud chargers leap forth. The magic of nature surrounds them." But by the last movement he admitted, "...I've forgotten completely what picture I had in mind."

It doesn't matter. Even without the composer's program, the "Romantic" Symphony conjures up visions of beauty, grandeur, and majesty aplenty for all but the least imaginative listeners. Although Esa-Pekka Salonen's 1998 Sony release with the Los Angeles Philharmonic is perhaps too dependent upon his trying to convey the grandness of the music to lay claim to top honors, one cannot fault him for trying hard in admittedly so grand a work.

Esa-Pekka Salonen
Still, Salonen has some tough competition in this piece. Eugene Jochum (DG or EMI) does a better job conjuring up the mysticism of the nature motif; Otto Klemperer (EMI) holds the structure together better; and Karl Bohm (Decca) is probably best at maintaining the work's forward momentum. Salonen takes the slowest route; at almost seventy minutes long, the music tends to lag, and one wants to give the maestro a little nudge in the behind from time to time. Salonen tries heroically to sustain every note, mark every contrast, and coax the last ounce of splendor from the score, but he tries a little too hard. In the end, I was moved more by what the interpretation could have been than by what it was. Still, Salonen's effort is noble, and it's really hard not like Bruckner's lovely score no matter whose hands it's in.

Sony's sound, recorded at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, CA in May 1997 is big and full, with an enormous dynamic range. If Sony had made the recording in the really old, analogue days, Salonen's softest passages would have probably sunk beneath a surface of tape hiss. Here, in digital, the contrasts are splendidly dramatic, even if they appear more the work of the audio engineers than the conductor. Overall, too, the sound is a little dark and murky compared to, say, Klemperer (EMI) or Blomstedt (Denon), both of whom open up the stage more and allow us to hear further into the orchestra.

For the Bruckner fan and the Bruckner collector, I can recommend Salonen with little hesitation. For the first-time Bruckner buyer, however, maybe Klemperer, Bohm, or even the old Bruno Walter recording (Sony) would be safer places to start.

JJP

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


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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 over 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, as of right now it comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio High Current preamplifier, AVA FET Valve 550hc or Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer.
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.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa