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Hyperion Records

LSO0716 - Bruckner: Symphony No 4
Recording details: June 2011
Barbican, London, United Kingdom
Produced by James Mallinson
Engineered by Jonathan Stokes
Release date: November 2011
Total duration: 69 minutes 8 seconds

‘Haitink’s late, live Bruckner Fourth is not only the most sumptuously beautiful, it’s also the most satisfying … few performances capture so well the sense of mystery at the heart of this symphony’ (BBC Music Magazine)

'[Haitink's] authority in Bruckner is unquestionable’ (Hi-Fi News)

'I've been something of a stickler with preferring Günter Wand’s recordings of the Bruckner symphonies ... but I think I've found an even better version in Haitink’s No 4, not to mention the improved sonics' (Audiophile Audition, USA)

Symphony No 4

Bernard Haitink is internationally renowned for his interpretations of Bruckner and is widely recognized as the world’s leading Bruckner conductor.

Bruckner’s Symphony No 4 (‘Romantic’) conjures up visions of mediaeval knights, huntsmen and enchanted woodland, particularly through the prominent use of the horn in the work. One of his most popular pieces, it was treated to many revisions by the composer and this recording features the second version of the 1877/8 Nowak edition (published 1953) with the 1880 Finale.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The epithet ‘Romantic’ is Bruckner’s own, and although they may seem like programmatic wisdom after the event, the charming descriptions he gave to each of the movements of his Fourth Symphony while engaged on his several revisions of the work make quite clear what kind of Romanticism this is. The programme is of mediaeval towns flanked by enchanted woodland, knights and huntsmen, noonday dancing in forest clearings: such is the substance of that amiable early Romantic painter Schinkel rather than his awe-inducing contemporary Caspar David Friedrich (note that the heyday of both artists came nearly half a century before Bruckner began work on the Fourth Symphony in 1874). In other words, the moodier imaginings and the fantastical subjectivity of the artist we think of as the archetypal Romantic are nowhere in sight.

Not that the long-discredited image of Bruckner the simple, unsophisticated countryman has anything to do with the essence of the fourth Symphony. His record of nature, dominated in every movement by the sound of the horn, is often expressed in clean, bright colours and straightforward progressions; those well-meaning but conventionally-minded colleagues Franz Schalk and Ferdinand Löwe were wrong to clothe Bruckner’s thought in darker, more Wagnerian hues when they made revisions to the work in the late 1880s. But there are times, too, when a paler cast of thought registers in an altogether more complex use of harmony: this, if anything, comes closer to our image of a ‘Romantic’ symphony. The tension between the two is sustained successfully for the first time in Bruckner’s work, and that is surely why he took so long to shape it to his liking. That done, the path was clear for the kind of symphony he now knew he wanted to write; only the genesis of the Eighth was to cause anything like the same trouble. After the first draft of 1874, Bruckner revised the Fourth Symphony in 1877–78, providing a new scherzo and finale along with the picturesque programme; the ‘Popular Festival’ title he gave the fourth movement is obviously quite inappropriate to the titanic spirit of the re-thought finale from 1880. 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. It is Nowak’s publication of this version that Bernard Haitink has chosen to perform.

The easy luminosity of Bruckner’s un-improvable orchestration shines out in the symphony’s opening. The string mists that usher in the magical horn call, like many a Brucknerian beginning, owe much to the inspiration of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; but the key is major, not minor, for the first time in Bruckner’s output, and the stillness is effortlessly held over thirty-five bars before the faintest hint of a crescendo. As the light grows, a new figure emerges – first ascending, then descending – in Bruckner’s favourite rhythmic pattern of two notes in a common-time bar followed by a group of three; it comes in useful as a dominant force later, en route to the inspired chorale climax of the development. So useful, in fact, that only when we hear the initial horn call blazing out in full E flat major glory in the movement’s coda for the first time do we realise that Bruckner the master has saved the trump card until the last, breathtaking minute. By way of rustic repose after the first powerful orchestral statements, the second subject group enters on strings alone – surprisingly in D flat major – with a simple pattern on violins that Bruckner referred to as the chirping of a forest tom-tit, with the nature-lover’s response countering in the viola melody; that, at least, was no programmatic afterthought. These forest murmurs, soon tempered by experience, provide the atmospheric food for reflection between the movement’s shining glories.

Bruckner’s Andante looks simple on paper but proves no less the fruit of subtle thought: a restrained parade of elementary C minor funeral march (tenderly voiced at first by cellos and ripe for increasingly assertive major-key transformations in development and coda), chorale for strings (straightforwardly presented only once, in the exposition) and the striking contrast of a long, tonally restless melody for violas with pizzicato accompaniment. Confined here to the role of eloquent observers, the horns again take centre stage in the Scherzo, their simple hunting-call (again, note, in that mixed rhythm of two notes and a group of three) suddenly amazing us at the climax by resounding in a foreign key – though answering trumpets hold doggedly to the movement’s home key of B flat major. Developments shadow another, reflective treatment of the rhythmic pattern on strings; the trio is pure, bucolic repose – though, again, not as simple as its flowing oboe and clarinet song at first suggests.

Nowhere does the mature Bruckner strike out on his own to challenge our received notion of symphonic form more than in his finales. The Fourth’s remains something of a prototype for more perfectly proportioned edifices to come, though it operates in the same way as a kind of crystallisation of the work’s essence rather than the action-packed, rhetorical summing-up that is the provenance of the more conventional ‘Romantic’ symphony. No advocate of the composer has put it better than the fine symphonist Robert Simpson when he wrote that ‘a Bruckner symphony is, so to speak, an archaeological “dig”. The first three movements are like layers removed, revealing the city below, the finale’. Simpson finds fault with the commonplaces and bad timing of this finale’s more reflective subject-matter, and it’s hard not to agree. Yet the bedrock of towering orchestral unisons – reached by way of rhythmic reminders, patterns shared with the first movement and Scherzo – is undeniably more overwhelming than anything that has gone before, and however lost we may feel in the voids between the masses, the coda sets everything right by surpassing even the symphony’s opening in the radiance and breadth with which it unfurls its fanfare.

David Nice © 2010

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