Review: Bruckner Symphony No 4 - Original Edition

Kent Nagano and the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra

This recording is the debut performance with Kent Nagano leading the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra. Although Anton Bruckner's 4th Symphony is perhaps one of his most popular works, opting to perform the 1874 edition, the original version, is practically unheard of. Together they bring a masterpiece into new light, giving us a chance to re-explore this hallmark of romantic music.

Bruckner nicknamed this piece "Romantic" himself, although he was referring to the more medieval ideal with heroic adventures, rather than the more Victorian Romantic love. In a letter Bruckner wrote to Paul Heyse in 1890 said,

"In the first movement of the 'Romantic' Fourth Symphony the intention is to depict the horn that proclaims the day from the town hall! Then life goes on; in the Gesangsperiode [the second subject] the theme is the song of the great tit Zizipe. 2nd movement: song, prayer, serenade. 3rd: hunt and in the Trio how a barrel-organ plays during the midday meal in the forest."

Thus the horn plays a large role in the music of Symphony No 4. One of the primary difference between the original 1874 edition and later editions is the Scherzo or 3rd movement. The original edition starts with a solo horn and really allows us to relish the sound of the instrument. However, in terms of the movement feeling like a Scherzo (or "joke" as in Italian), the movement never quiet seems to have the lighter aspects of other versions. It is rich and romantic, but continues to have the darker overtones indicative of his 3rd Symphony. Perhaps the Wagnerian heroic ideal is more prevalent with the dark tension present; later editions of the symphony are more Victorian "Romantic" in feel.

The performance by the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra under the baton of Kent Nagano is dramatic and definitely heroic. The subtle tremelo of the strings to start nearly inaudibly allowing for the town crier (solo horn) to come in with crystal clarity is delightfully done. The sense Bruckner wanted of a town waking in a heroic world is superbly portrayed allowing the rich harmonic tension to slowly build, sweeping over the soundscape.

If there is a sense of prayer to the second movement, it is of a hero calling to the gods for strength, humility, courage. Kent Nagano keeps the interplay of the strings with the woodwinds delicately done, allowing each element to come through. As the movement shifts into pizzicato lower strings under an upper string melody the balance is maintained, slyly allowing for the inverse to happen flawlessly with upper strings pizzicato and lower string carrying the melody. There is a sense that should a soloist need to be heard, the orchestra accommodated, allowing the solo instrument to the forefront without sacrificing resonance.

In the third movement, there are numerous chances for the orchestra to show off, building from nothingness to near frantic fanfares – all of this in the couple minutes of music. Yet, the movement still progresses, alternating solo horn with a robust full orchestra. Although, I am not sure this movement works as well as later versions of the Scherzo, the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra handles the transitions and developments impeccably.

The fourth movement, Finale, is almost a superhuman build to the final climax. Although it initially takes off from the third movement with grand gestures, the center development section of the movement allows subtlety to reign in hopes for a strong build to the finish. At just over 20 minutes, the piece is a finale to the symphony. Although there is a strong finish to the fourth movement, the build to it lacks the same clarity as in the other movements.

Bruckner replaced the entire last movement with a Volksfest for the 1878 version, replacing that with an entirely new finale for the 1880 version. These revisions were probably because as strong the movement is, this original version doesn’t have the same strength as the other three movements. At times it seems to get lost in the minutia of harmonic development, as if Bruckner was too clever for his own good. Perhaps when he heard it performed he felt this, which is why he re-wrote the final movement.

Over all this is a strong recording and certainly a bold statement for a first partnering of Kent Nagano and the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra. Brucker’s Fourth Symphony is a wonderful work. This CD’s rendition of the first three movements is exciting, definitely in line with what Bruckner strived to attain. While the performance of the fourth movement is solid, the music isn’t of the same quality as the other movements and the recording suffers as a result.

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