Anton Bruckner’s Journey to the ‘Romantic’ Symphony – Simon Rattle & London Symphony Orchestra

Symphony No.4 in E-flat – discarded Scherzo (1876) & ‘Volksfest’ Finale (1878) [edited Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs]
Symphony No.4 in E-flat [1878-1881 version, edited Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs, Anton Bruckner Urtext Gesamtausgabe, Vienna 2021; world premiere]

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 19 September, 2021
Venue: Hall, Barbican Centre, London

The ‘Bruckner Problem’ – that is to say, the various revisions of the Symphonies by the composer and their subsequent editions by musicologists – is one that keeps obsessive Brucknerians intrigued and entertained, but presents frustrating and apparently pointless complexity for more general listeners, in working out what exactly they are hearing. Sir Simon Rattle described this concert as a glimpse into Bruckner’s workshop as he journeyed through the stages of one of his most popular Symphonies. Uniquely, some of its revisions do not comprise adjustments to the same underlying score but two completely discarded movements, now rarely heard (though other versions of these received an outing in 2016 at the Royal Festival Hall, as a part of Vladimir Jurowski’s series of the lesser-known guises of the Symphonies, when the 1874 version of the Fourth was presented).

The first half of this concert featured that pair of abandoned movements from a new edition by Benjamin-Gunnars Cohrs. The Scherzo (that from 1874, as revised in 1876) is completely different from the one almost always now encountered in the Symphony’s 1880s versions (with its hunting horns). It has some striking ideas (a haunting recurring horn call, alternating with an unsettled orchestral response) but its episodic and halting nature make it unsatisfactory overall, so it is unsurprising that Bruckner did not retain it for the later, more definitive version of the work.

The horn calls here were relatively expansive (despite the marking ‘very fast’) but the responses from the rest of the London Symphony Orchestra were nervously urgent, which helped to sustain momentum in this hesitant music, along with the strings’ dramatic descending scales. Rustling and shimmering sonorities elsewhere from that section – especially over the gently swinging melody of the Trio – created admirable contrast.

The so-called Volksfest first attempt of the Symphony’s Finale was cast aside in favour of the one now normally heard, composed from 1880. Although it shares some of the same material as the familiar later versions – notably the monumental unison theme as its backbone – it is handled in a rather different way and in varying combinations. A much more similar, searing coda with an ascending sequence of chords is present, compared with the 1874 version, but it is less sustained and more interrupted than the later form. Sir Simon noted that this 1878 incarnation of the Finale is marked to be played in one swift tempo throughout, and that is how he directed it. In one (simplistic) manner that gets around the problem of how to negotiate the different blocks of material in this movement (perhaps not satisfactorily synthesised by Bruckner in any version of it) and this performance underlined the tautness of exactly this version, with pregnant throbbing bass notes at the opening. But it eschewed the deeper problem of how to relate the widely contrasting character of some of the passages to each other. Instead they tended to pass without much structural significance, expect for the LSO’s instinctive understanding of the gravitas inherent in the huge unison motif, with which they are of course familiar from any other performance they have given of this Symphony in the past.

The complete presentation of the Fourth in the second half – although broadly following the form in which it is usually heard – received its world premiere in this edition, which uncovers the revisions made by Brucker between 1878 and 1881. That makes it substantially the second version of the Symphony, very recognisably that of the familiar editions today, but with a few differences in the part writing – often brought out with clarity by the LSO – and in some of the transitional passages between the principal thematic material.

At 62 minutes Sir Simon’s was a brisk reading: if it could not be accused of exceeding the qualifying direction ‘not too fast’ in the first movement, that line was closer to being crossed in the Finale. But that relative brevity was attributable more to an unwillingness to yield more and breathe between sections. In a sense that emphasised the impression of this being a provisional version of the Symphony in Bruckner’s mind, as well as bringing out a welcome dynamism in passages which can become static on account of their harmonic monotony. But it downplayed the radical, visionary nature of his symphonic imagination.

Contrast and tension were generated more by the colourful shifts in timbre or texture by the LSO, such as the flustered descent from mid-air to the ground in the very opening of the work; yearning strings (especially cellos) when they intervened with countervailing themes; lucid but warm string tone in the otherwise funereal tread of the second movement; and a lilting Trio in the third movement. Powerful brass and weighty orchestral ensemble gave the comparatively hasty review of the Finale’s bold musical arguments due force and vigour. But in Rattle’s interpretation, by not standing back more from the structure, the sense of storytelling implied by Bruckner’s own choice of a nickname for this work was lacking, whatever the abstract value for avid devotees of this composer to hear this edition for the first time.

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