Bruckner Symphony No 4

Author: 
Stephen Johnson

BRUCKNER Symphony No 4

  • Symphony No. 4, 'Romantic'
  • Symphony No. 4, 'Romantic'

On the surface these two performances have a surprising amount in common. The pacing of each movement is broadly similar: majestic, not too fast, in the first movement; a slow, contemplative tread in the second; animated, but capable of opening out into something more leisurely in the Scherzo; varied, but with the sense of an underlying slow pulse in the finale. Both Wand and Salonen allow themselves some fairly generous rubato from time to time: Wand halting slightly on the high unaccompanied cello phrase in the first movement second subject (track 1, 3'30''), Salonen reining the brass back a little after at the high point of the exposition (track 1, 5'37'').
But there’s something about Wand’s performance that puts it in a different league from the start. There’s the depth and richness of the string sound in the opening tremolo (barely audible in the Sony recording, even with the volume up). A few seconds later the Berlin Philharmonic’s principal horn intones the opening phrases so magically and majestically that it’s hard to believe one isn’t listening to a real voice – a superhuman larynx, not just a contraption of brass and valves. Of course the sound is, to some extent, the orchestra’s own, but there is a feeling that the players are giving extra for Wand, something with more inner life; and the unaffected eloquence and shapeliness of the phrasing is all Wand. It carries me along even when the rubato ought to jarr, as it does sometimes in Salonen’s version.
The Wand, it should be said, is a concert performance, and it feels like one. Things that work in concert – the once-off live inspiration – aren’t always ideal solutions on a repeatable commercial recording. Take Wand’s big ritardando at the fleeting reference to Brunnhilde’s Magic Sleep motif in the finale (track 4, 13'10'') – I think the effect might pall after a couple of playings. But then Wand does ease very effectively into the weird pianissimo cello and bass figures that follow, triplet quavers gradually becoming triplet crotchets. Salonen’s handling of that passage will be less controversial, but I doubt if it will ever raise the hairs on the back of my neck – as Wand did.
The nearest rival I can think of to Wand would be the much-recommended Decca Bohm version. Bohm too has that ‘inner’ warmth, the mysterious ability to make a phrase speak without apparently doing very much to it. Bohm’s handling of tempo won’t offend the purists – as Wand might on occasion. But even Bohm isn’t quite as elementally conclusive in the final crescendo. To say this version has the humanity and atmospheric subtlety of Bohm combined with the structural wholeness – the sense of form as something alive – of the old Haitink (only available as part of a nine-disc set) may seem to be claiming too much; but for me that’s the unavoidable verdict. And the sound quality is excellent (the Sony recording sounds strangely dull in comparison).
Just one little extra. There’s a splendid misprint in the Sony note: amongst the contents of the second movement is listed “a lowing chorale” – but perhaps I shouldn’t beef about that …'

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