Bruckner
Symphony No.4 in E flat (Romantic) [1880 version, edited Robert Haas, 1936]
Philharmonia Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnányi

Recorded on 30 October 2008 in Royal Festival Hall, London
CD No: SIGNUM CLASSICS
SIGCD256
Duration: 64 minutes
Reviewed: June 2012
The audience-filled Royal Festival Hall is not an easy venue for recording and there have been past failures but Signum seems to have conquered the problems, presenting sound of considerable immediacy. The hall is not particularly resonant and often Bruckner is recorded in more-spacious surroundings but in the context of Christoph von Dohnányi's strongly detailed account the amount of reverberation presented seems just right. In terms of balance the conductor pays much attention to stressing contrasting colours – woodwind detail is captured exceptionally well. Given the fairly immediate sound, there is always concern in Bruckner as to whether the brass might overpower. Here it does so less than on many another recording and the only cause for thought is that the violins occasionally make less impact than they should.
On this occasion we are free of the controversial 'Bruckner edition' problem. Dohnányi uses the excellent 1936 Robert Haas publication of Bruckner's 1878/1880 version. This is widely accepted as the composer's true intention as is Leopold Nowak's almost identical presentation. (I shall not bother the reader with the tiny alterations which Haas included in a later, equally acceptable publication.)
The nature of Dohnányi's interpretation is clear from the outset. In some readings the magical opening horn-call might have been emerging from a distant forest; here, over extremely hushed strings, we have a bold announcement of the pervasive theme beautifully played. Strength and directness continue throughout although Dohnányi is fairly flexible within his moderate pacing – faster than Böhm or Tintner, similar to Eugen Jochum or Günter Wand but slower than Eduard van Beinum (in a June 1952 Amsterdam performance that has latterly become available).
Directness does not exclude the evocation of mystery and there is a magical passage just after eleven minutes when the orchestra becomes hushed to re-introduce the opening horn call in gentler mode with softly answering flute. The timpani subtly echo the horn’s phrases. The Andante quasi allegretto is not as march-like as is sometimes the case – it is possible effectively to make expressive hesitations at ends of phrases and Dohnányi does so without hindering the progress of the music. The dance element of the scherzo is admirably evident. A measured tempo is adopted although perhaps Dohnányi's relaxation at the thoughtful middle part holds back the impulse somewhat. The woodwind playing in the trio is superlative.
Dohnányi makes the finale something of a tour de force even though this is not the strongest of Bruckner's constructions, it is however immensely superior to the original 1878 movement of which this is the 1880 revision. I like the way in which the timpani are used with immense power to underline the significant moments of the big climaxes and the horns always match the weight of the heavier brass. Another of Dohnányi's magical moments occurs just before twelve-minutes-in when after a noble climax a soft Wagner-like passage leads via a sombre climbing from the depths to a challengingly discordant woodwind sequence. Bruckner writes many a beautiful and serene melody and in this he can be comforting but he is certainly not a comfortable composer because the listener can never be sure when the next unexpected clash of harmony might arrive. The performance ends grandly with a broad coda and a ringing final chord. A pity about the applause: true it respects the music by giving a decent pause after its close but it is entirely unnecessary and a distraction on a recording.
Dohnányi is a notable conductor of Bruckner and he seems to have a special sympathy for the ‘Romantic’ Symphony. There are several recordings available including off-air performances on unauthorised CDs. Officially, however, Dohnányi has recorded the work twice, both with the Cleveland Orchestra, first for Decca and then the Clevelanders issued a concert performance from May 2000. Dohnányi has also recorded most of Bruckner’s other symphonies, beginning with No.3, but none are recent releases. Can we perhaps hope for more Bruckner with the Philharmonia Orchestra? After all Dohnányi is now its Honorary Conductor for Life.

 

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