Bruckner Symphony 4 Roth Myrios MYR032

Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)
Symphony No 4 in E-flat major, ‘Romantic’ WAB 104 (First version 1874 ed. Nowak)
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/François-Xavier Roth
rec. live composite, 19-21 September 2021, Kölner Philharmonie, Cologne, Germany
Myrios Classics MYR032 [70]

Not long ago, I reviewed the magnificent cycle of Bruckner’s symphonies conducted by Herbert Blomstedt. This new recording by François-Xavier Roth arrived while I was evaluating the Blomstedt set and I made a conscious decision not only to put the Roth to one side but also to allow a gap of a few weeks before even putting the disc into the CD player. My reasoning was that, remembering Roth’s very interesting account of the Seventh Symphony (review), I expected that he would get his excellent orchestra to produce a leaner sound than what I had heard from the majestic Gewandhausorchester. Furthermore and crucially, Roth is favouring the original versions of Bruckner symphonies in this evolving cycle, whereas in the Fourth Blomstedt used the more familiar 1878/80 version in the edition by Leopold Nowak. So, with all due respect to both conductors, I wanted to put the Blomstedt version to the back of my mind so that I could focus on Roth.

Let me start by making some general points. I find Roth’s direction of the score is sure-footed. With one possible exception, his tempo choices seem consistently sensible and he conducts the music with the intelligence that I’d expect from a conductor with his perceptive pedigree. In realising his conception of Bruckner’s music, he is supported by very fine playing from the Gürzenich-Orchester. Finally, the Myrios recorded sound is excellent in every respect. So, if you want to hear this symphony in the original version, you can rest assured that the basics have all been well and truly covered.

As is so often the case with Bruckner symphonies, the question of editions represents an elephant trap for the unwary. Harald Hodeige relates in his booklet essay that the original version of the Fourth (which we hear on this disc) was the product of some 11 months of work and was finished in 1874. Frustrated in his attempts to secure a first performance between 1874 and 1876, Bruckner revised the score; part of the revision included the composition of an entirely new third movement. Then there was yet another revision, which produced the familiar 1878/80 version, and even after that revision had finally been unveiled in performance, he continued to tinker with the score. In all these revision labours, various well-meaning friends and pupils lent a “helping hand”.

With the obvious exception of the third movement – not termed a Scherzo in this version – which was completely discarded in the revision, listeners will find the basic thematic material of the original version is familiar; it’s what Bruckner does with that material which is unfamiliar. The first movement opens with the familiar horn call over tremolando strings. As a point of detail, it’s noticeable how much Roth and his string players make of hairpin dynamics in these pages: attention to detail is a feature of this performance. As the movement unfolds, significant differences can be heard between the original version and the one with which we’re familiar. More than once I found myself asking was the revised version ‘better’ or was any such judgement bound to be skewed because I’m much more comfortable, though familiarity, with the later version? It’s a moot point. There were occasions when it was easy to decide a preference. One such occurs at 13:17 where a crescendo timpani roll leads into a huge orchestral tutti. Frankly, the timpani roll is a crude gesture and, even though it’s only a point of detail, I’m glad that Bruckner excised it on revision. In general, I think Bruckner explores and develops his thematic material well in this original version, but I feel that the revised version is tauter and better organised; in addition, transitions seem smoother.

The second movement is marked Andante quasi allegretto. Roth adopts quite a measured pace; the tempo instruction seems to imply something a little bit swifter but I think Roth justifies his view, even if my preference would be for a bit more flow. Once again, when one compares the original with the familiar revised version, there are significant, but interesting, differences in the way Bruckner handles his material. The main climax (from 17:07), expertly prepared by Roth, is hugely imposing. The very end of the movement seems to be rather abrupt in this version.

Bruckner discarded his original third movement completely and, frankly, I think his decision was the right one. The 1874 movement is interesting, but the material is nowhere near as interesting as the famous ‘hunting horn’ replacement. Nor is the Trio of the same quality as we encounter in the replacement movement, though the original Trio, which is founded upon a little dialogue between the violas and the oboe, is undoubtedly attractive.

In the finale, the material which is derived from the first movement is retained. However, much is made also of a strange-sounding descending motif; it appears the composer later referred to this material as the “chill of the night”. It’s very unlike anything I’ve heard elsewhere in Bruckner’s output and it just doesn’t seem to me to sit right. So, Bruckner’s decision to excise the material was probably the right one, though it’s absolutely fascinating to hear it. I strongly suspect that he may have felt – or been advised – that music such as this was an impediment to getting the symphony performed. Maybe that was the right judgement, but had Bruckner decided to retain this material, I wonder whether it might have taken him along any different paths in the music that followed the Fourth Symphony. As with the first two movements, there is a good deal in the finale which is recognisable from the revisions. However, much is not, and I have to say that it seems to me that Bruckner’s second thoughts produced a finale that is more convincing and cohesive.

When I’d finished drafting my thoughts on François-Xavier Roth’s performance, I looked up my review of Simone Young’s 2007 live recording, which also uses the 1874 original version, in order to insert a link to it. I see that I discussed in some detail my impressions of the changes that confront the listener who is more accustomed to hearing the 1878/80 version. Though I arrived at my thoughts on the Roth performance without any reference to the Simone Young review, I think I reached the same conclusions about the text: it’s fascinating to hear Bruckner’s first thoughts, but the 1878/80 revision produced a better symphony.

That said, I think anyone who cares about Bruckner’s music should listen to the original version of the Fourth. We are fortunate indeed that the score is available in two recordings from live performances which are superbly played, expertly interpreted and presented in very fine sound – the Young disc is an SACD; the Roth is on CD. It’s almost invidious to express a preference between Simone Young’s recording and the Roth version. The factor that sways me marginally towards Simone Young is that I prefer her slightly swifter core speed for the second movement. Others may feel that Roth’s pace invests the music with a bit more gravitas but, for me, Young dispels any suggestion of the music dragging. If you have her recording, I think you can rest content but anyone wanting to hear the original version of the Fourth symphony will find that François-Xavier Roth and the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln make a fine case for it.

John Quinn

Previous review: Ralph Moore

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