Symphony No.4 in E flat (Romantic) [Original 1874 version, ed. Nowak]
Recorded 19 September 2007 in faraolstudios, Munich
Reviewed by: Christian Hoskins
Reviewed: August 2009
CD No: SONY CLASSICAL
Duration: 75 minutes
Few pieces of music have a more complex history than Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony. The first version was completed in 1874 when the composer was 50. Four years later, Bruckner revised the whole symphony, including the composition of an entirely new scherzo, and in 1880 he undertook a further revision of the finale. This version, with the first three movements dating from 1878 and the finale dating from 1880, was used for the symphony’s premiere in 1881. Some minor amendments followed in 1881 and in 1886, and then between 1887 and 1888, the symphony being revised by Ferdinand Löwe, Franz Schalk, Joseph Schalk and Bruckner himself ready for publication in 1889.
For nearly half a century, the final version of the Fourth Symphony was the only one known to performers and audiences. Then in 1936, Robert Haas published the 1881 version of the score and, later, Leopold Nowak made available the 1886 version. The Haas and Nowak editions, representing the final stages of the score before the input of Löwe and the Schalk brothers, are variations of the 1878/80 score used for the premiere and soon came to be regarded as representing Bruckner’s definitive conception of the symphony.
When, in 1975, Nowak published Bruckner’s original score, it was initially seen as having little more than curiosity value. It took seven years before the first recording, conducted by Eliahu Inbal, was made. More recently, however, the original has been receiving increasing attention. Much of it is significantly different to the familiar 1878/80 version, including the entire scherzo and most of the finale. However, written at a time when Bruckner was already an experienced composer (by then of three large-scale masses and five symphonies, including those known as “00” and “0”), it has many passages that are strikingly powerful and often profoundly beautiful.
Kent Nagano, whose recordings of Bruckner’s Third and Sixth Symphonies were made with Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, is a persuasive advocate of Bruckner’s first thoughts. Rarely has Bruckner’s subtitle “Romantic” seemed more apposite. With an unhurried approach to tempos and expressive playing from the Bavarian State Orchestra, Nagano emphasises the richness and luminosity of the original text. A highlight of the performance is the scherzo, whose bustling energy makes way for one of Bruckner’s finest trios, featuring an achingly lovely theme for violas over tremolando strings.
Nagano’s interpretation of the finale is similarly impressive, the various appearances of the second subject presented with a compelling warmth and ardour. Elsewhere, the symphony’s opening horn call, which is marked piano in the 1874 score compared to mezzo forte later, is exquisitely played, and the first movement builds steadily to a powerful conclusion. Nagano leads a compelling account of the Andante, here lasting over just 20 minutes (and of similar length to the outer movements), with sensitive phrasing and careful attention to tone colour.
In terms of sound, Sony’s recording is full-bodied if a little opaque in tutti passages. The SACD multi-channel layer adds little in terms of additional clarity. In terms of performance, however, this is a highly commendable version, largely displacing Inbal’s slightly reserved pioneering account. Greater competition comes from Simone Young and the Hamburg Philharmonic on Oehms Classics, who eschew some of Nagano’s romantic glow in favour of a greater sense of forward drive and elemental power. Both Nagano’s and Young’s are equally valuable interpretations, however, and keen Brucknerians will want both.