Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 4 in E-flat Major, “Romantic”, WAB 104 (Second Version, 1878-80; ed. Nowak)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Dausgaard
rec. 2020, Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway
BIS BIS-2534 SACD [61]

With this third installment, Thomas Dausgaard continues his Bruckner series for BIS Records with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, having been preceded by the Sixth (review ~ review) and Third (review ~ review) Symphonies with the same orchestra.

As usual, BIS is releasing this recording as a physical SACD with three layers of audio – standard CD audio, high-resolution stereo, and high-resolution surround sound.  It is also available as a download from the BIS storefront website,, also in all three audio versions listed above.  The download also comes with an e-booklet in pdf format, as well as the outside back of the inlay card.  For this review, I listened to the download version in high-resolution surround sound (96 kHz/24-bit, 5.0 surround for audio junkies).

For the most part, musically speaking, this recording remains consistent with its predecessors.  As before, the Bergen Philharmonic gives us a splendid performance, with all departments turning in a first-class reading of Dausgaard’s interpretation.  Dausgaard maintains a finely tuned balance, so that virtually everything on the page of the score is audible, with violins divided left and right, allowing us to better appreciate their back-and-forth dialogue.

Take5 Music Production has made enough recordings in Grieghallen for BIS that, by now, they surely have it down to a science – and judging by the quality of audio on this recording, I don’t doubt it.  We have a well-placed orientation that seems to be around the middle of the front seating section, with plenty of natural-sounding left and right spread, along with an equally natural-sounding, fully unobstructed front-to-back depth, with excellent clarity no matter the volume, be it the softest pianissimo or the loudest fortissimo, all with unstrained transparency.  With the surround sound mix, the additional channels provide an extra sense of the hall’s ambience, making the sense of “being there” only that much more palpable, and giving the louder passages an extra degree of resonant power.

As a comparison reference, I used the Bruckner 4th recording with Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (review ~ review) (Reference Recordings FR-713SACD, still available).  The Honeck recording is also in surround sound, so it makes a good side-by-side match.

I will not pretend to be even the slightest bit of an expert on Bruckner versions, nor do I wish to get involved in the can’t-win politics that surround them, so for this review, suffice to say that both recordings use the same version of the score, the 1878-80 Nowak version, which seems to be the one most-often recorded in general. 

There are some very marked differences between the two recordings, not only in the orchestras’ sound, but especially in the two conductors’ interpretive approaches.  You, the listener, will have to decide which one seems the most appealing to you.

The Pittsburgh Symphony, as is typical for them on every recent Pittsburgh recording I have heard, has a distinctly “dark” tone quality, with only minimal amounts of brightness or stridency in the sound.  In this regard, they could actually remind one of numerous Germanic orchestras who take the same approach (including the Wiener Philharmoniker, where Honeck used to play in their violin section).  It’s especially noticeable (to me, at least) in Pittsburgh’s woodwinds, where there is very little edge or “reediness” in the sound, which contributes to a stronger sense of the overall woodwind section having a blended sonority.  In addition, and along the same lines, their low string section is one of the “meatiest” I have heard, with plenty of muscle to give the orchestra a very firm sonic foundation.

For the overall orchestra, this darker sound quality also opens up the possibility of playing with a greater degree of amplitude power or volume, without the tone quality getting overly unpleasant in the process.  In a piece like a Bruckner symphony, where there is a lot of “stacking” in the score, this could be a very notable advantage.  (“Stacking” is simply large groups of instruments being assigned parts that are either exactly the same or very similar, so that they appear “stacked” on the page of the score.)

Bergen’s sound, while not so “dark”, is certainly very fine in its own way and is of the highest caliber.  I would not say that either one is superior to the other, it’s just different, and ultimately comes down to one’s listening preference for whichever piece of music is at hand.  Both conductors do an outstanding job of keeping their orchestra’s sections well-balanced, and the audio engineering on both albums is similarly complimentary of the overall sonority in this regard.

Dausgaard’s movement-by-movement timings are 16:46, 14:33, 9:55, and 19:02, with an overall total of 61:12.  Contrast this with Honeck’s timings, which are 18:29, 15:52, 10:11, and 21:32, with a total of 66:07.

Dausgaard’s melodic lines are not given a great deal of shaping or expressiveness beyond the markings in the score.  He seems to prefer using a faster tempo to keep them sustained, so that they simply don’t have any time to bog down.  This approach served him rather well with his Schumann and Mendelssohn recordings, where the scoring is notably lighter, but in the post-Wagnerian Bruckner symphonies, some more weight or heft would seem to be the most appropriate way of handling it.

By way of contrast, Honeck takes a measured approach, with tempi that seem deeply thoughtful.  His booklet essay outlines a number of specific instructions he gave his orchestra to help bring this piece to life, but even this doesn’t come close to reflecting the amount of imaginative detail coming out of the speakers on his Pittsburgh recording.  Where Dausgaard tries to infuse energy into the score via his tempi, Honeck prefers to generate the energy internally, allowing the score to release its own potency and inertia, as built in by Bruckner.

While staying faithfully within the context of the score’s instructions, countless expressive touches are inserted by the Pittsburgh musicians, melodic lines being pushed forward with subtle unmarked crescendos, or conversely being pulled back by equally subtle diminuendos.  The notes of melodic lines are frequently pushed audibly forward (without breaking tempo) so that they make a connection with the next phrase or melodic line.  This has a subtle, and yet powerful effect of binding the overall symphony together in a way that gives the total formal structure a greater degree of clarity, and makes it more apparent as we progress through the individual movements.

As in his previous Bruckner recordings, Dausgaard seems to equate speed with energy.  His initial opening tempo seems well-judged and is actually pretty typical of other recordings I have heard of this piece, including the Honeck.  However, in spite of the first movement’s opening instruction, “Bewegt, nicht zu schnell” (“Moving, not too fast”), when we come to the louder passages, Dausgaard seems to possibly forget the “nicht zu schnell” part and hits the accelerator.  This remains mostly true for the remainder of the movement, and indeed, the whole symphony.  Rather than getting a sense of structure, we simply alternate between softer and slower sections versus louder and faster sections, until the end of the movement is suddenly upon us.

Dausgaard’s slow second movement seems to have a disappointing sense of lifelessness, with viola melodies that meander in between episodes of orchestral tuttis that give a sense of relief from the monotony.  Bergen seems to be doing their honest best to give Dausgaard exactly what he wants, but unfortunately, what he wants in this movement just doesn’t amount to much.

The scherzo, being a scherzo, is better suited to Dausgaard’s approach and thus fairs better.  Bergen’s articulations are crisp and sharply defined in the outer sections, but the quieter ländler sections take us back to the meandering issue, without much ländler-like lilt in evidence here.

The finale, with its quiet, but in-tempo opening, should have a ghostly, ominous sound, giving us a sense of the approaching first theme’s big statement by the full orchestra.  Pittsburgh gives us this in spades, with numerous subtle inflections in the under-stated whirling figures providing an inexorable sense of building.  When the big statement arrives, the effect is overwhelming and takes one’s breath away.

Dausgaard doesn’t use anything beyond the notes on the page of the score, which creates an unfortunate sense of listlessness rather than anticipation.  At the big statement, the effect is decidedly underwhelming and has little sense of the “arrival” we experience from Pittsburgh.  And so it continues.  As Pittsburgh goes through the finale, highly but appropriately stylized contrasting sections give us a good sense of where we are and of the approaching final climax, where in the Dausgaard, just like the first movement, we seem to simply go back and forth between softer and slower sections versus louder and faster sections, without much sense of the approaching ending, which is suddenly upon us.

In the Pittsburgh recording, just before the ending climax, Honeck has a strong sense of pausing to look back over the ground we have covered since the beginning of the first movement, giving the symphony’s structure a marvelous sense of completion and closure as the Pittsburgh horns triumphantly lead us through the thunderous, glorious conclusion.

As high-quality as Bergen’s performance is, and as equally high-quality as BIS’ Take5 engineering is, the Pittsburgh recording has a greater sense of weight and reserved power, just waiting to be unleashed when the right time comes.  Pittsburg’s horns, in particular, are surely among the finest in the world right now, with one of the most beautifully crafted, sectional “golden” tone qualities I have heard, as well as having massive reserves of power, even in the highest range of notes, so that they can roar out from behind the rest of the orchestra when the time comes, as it does in various parts of this symphony.

In the end, the Dausgaard-Bergen recording has many good qualities, but Dausgaard’s brisk tempi and lack of interpretive detail don’t help its case any.  I enjoyed hearing it – once – but my preference definitely remains with the Honeck-Pittsburgh recording.

David Phipps

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