Symphony No.4 in C minor (Tragic)
Symphony No.4 in E flat (Romantic)
London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mariss Jansons
Reviewed by: Duncan Hadfield
Reviewed: 4 November, 2001
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Bruckner was apparently a great admirer of Schubert, although exactly how much of the older composer’s vast output he was acquainted with remains debatable. Even in Vienna, during the second half of the 19th-century, probably the only Schubert symphony ever to get an airing was the ’Great C major’. Whether Bruckner knew Schubert’s ’Tragic’ or not, it was still a neat piece of programming to juxtapose it with Bruckner’s own Fourth.
When Schubert wrote his debut symphony (in October 1813), Beethoven’s Seventh was only two months away from its first public performance; the two works are rather different in stature, to say the least. But one might equally observe that Schubert was but 28 when he embarked upon what we term his Ninth; when Beethoven was 28 he had not yet produced his First. Beside Beethoven’s Nine, then, Schubert’s symphonies (including the ’Great’) might all be termed juvenilia. The influence of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven on Schubert’s symphonic canon is an intriguing issue: in his programme note, Lindsay Kemp dropped all three names merrily, without reaching any conclusions. In the case of Schubert’s Fourth, the model is less Beethoven’s turbulent Fifth, than the ’Sturm und Drang’ model of the 18th-century, as exemplified by Haydn, and Mozart’s G minor Symphony (No.40), a work of which Schubert was especially fond.
Still, whatever the lineage of the ’Tragic’ – by no means a masterpiece but an attractive and idiosyncratic early work – Jansons conducted it cogently, if laboriously. Tonal clarity and filigree textures were always evident in the searching, chromatic writing of the slow introduction. The bright and forthright playing of the LSO notwithstanding, Jansons thereafter distorted the essentially ’classical’ scale of the piece. A Romantic approach turned the ’Andante’ into an ’Adagio’, whilst the ensuing ’Menuetto’ took on a rather manic Scherzo-like posture. In the finale, Jansons went all out for colour and contrast. Crisp ensemble and alluring timbres made the rendition worthwhile albeit Jansons seemed to be trying too hard to make out a weightier case for the symphony than it can perhaps sustain.
Bruckner is the most problematic of composers – editions and scoring have to be considered before a single note is uttered. In his BBC Music Guide to Bruckner’s symphonies, Philip Barford says of the Fourth that it “has two main versions, the first composed in 1874, the second during 1878-80. A new Scherzo was added in 1878. The main problem with the work was the finale, which Bruckner reworked a number of times.” Notice Barford’s ambiguous covering of himself with “main” and “a number of times”. In his programme note for this Barbican concert, David Nice tells the story slightly differently: “After the first draft of 1874, Bruckner revised the Fourth Symphony in 1877-8, providing a new scherzo and finale [and then] re-thought [again the] finale in 1880. That year” – Barford says 1881 – “saw the successful Vienna premiere under Hans Richter. In 1886 Bruckner made a number of relatively minor modifications for a New York performance conducted by Anton Seidl, and it is Nowak’s publication of this version that Mariss Jansons has chosen to perform.”
Fine, except that he probably didn’t … Nice’s very next sentence is somewhat ironic in this respect: “The easy luminosity of Bruckner’s un-improvable orchestration…” – why then has virtually every Bruckner editor or conductor since the composer’s day tried to improve it? Bruckner himself unquestionably scored his Fourth Symphony for double woodwinds, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones and tuba. In this instance Jansons opted for quadruple woodwinds, five horns (a standard practice admittedly, the fifth being a ’bumper’), four trumpets, four trombones and tuba. (The type of tuba is interesting – in symphonies 5-9, Bruckner specifies a contrabass tuba, In the Fourth he had in mind the baritone tuba; here Patrick Harrild was wielding his four-valve contrabass model.)
Then which edition was it anyway? It certainly wasn’t the one Stephen Johnson, in his pre-concert talk, thought we’d hear for he alluded to the opening horn motif as worth listening out for at the end … on this occasion we didn’t get it. This was questionable as ’pure’ Nowak; maybe it was Haas’s second version (with Jansons augmenting the brass instruments), or Nowak, incorporating aspects of Haas II.
The Bruckner edition issue is labyrinthine in its ramifications. In addition to the difficulties arising from the composer’s own revisions, the position is further complicated by the editorial interference of associates, to whom he entrusted preparation of the printed scores. The published versions do not necessarily match Bruckner’s manuscripts in either the original or revised forms as left by the composer. The outcome of all this confusion was a series of performing editions by Robert Haas and Alfred Orel, based on a parcel of authentic manuscripts Bruckner bequeathed to the Court Library in Vienna. Haas and Orel also took it upon themselves to detail the discrepancies between the originals and the Schalk-Lowe versions. In 1945, before his work was completed, Haas was relieved of his post at the Music Department of the Austrian National Library. His successor, Leopold Nowak, was also appointed head of the International Bruckner Society, and under him a complete series of miniature scores was eventually issued. These do not always correspond with the performing scores prepared by Haas. Even getting close to Bruckner’s original or self-revised intentions doesn’t seem enough for most conductors; Jansons, to name but one, combines editions and adds instruments of his own volition anyway.
Whoever conducts them, the LSO, in an acoustically refurbished Barbican, is a world-class outfit, as this lucidly played account easily demonstrated. Yet to my mind Jansons couldn’t decide whether to opt for a picturesque ’Romantic’ approach or a more abstract architectural viewpoint. The opening movement was sharply judged and questing but the ’Andante’ was over-pondered. The Scherzo exalted almost too much and, for all its revisions, the finale still doesn’t quite come off. Jansons steered its twists and turns along well enough yet without any genuine sense of accruing tension. Throughout, the LSO brass played too loudly. Overloud brass and Bruckner seems to be much mooted these days – perhaps that should read muted! This was a perfectly adequate account, more efficiently workmanlike than inspired.