Top albums of 2022: Bruckner 4 according to LSO and Rattle

As judged by his contemporaries, Anton Bruckner the symphonist hardly received unanimous praise. Some success notwithstanding, the composer spent most of his life treading an uphill road towards the symphonic pantheon. In hindsight, his oeuvre stands out as a striking cycle of works-in-progress, out of which dazzling symphonic metamorphoses may be dissected.

Thanks to their posthumous reappraisal, Bruckner’s symphonies have since enjoyed repertory status both in concert halls and on recordings. Regarding the latter, there is a recently finished cycle by Gewandhausorchester and Andris Nelsons available on DG, alongside audio and video ones well in the making with Wiener Philharmoniker and Christian Thielemann, not to mention a newly-augured symphonic journey from Gürzenich-Orchester and François-Xavier Roth. Combined with immense back catalogue, the Bruckner symphonies have been well served in discography.

In context, the latest album release from the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle comes off as the most splendid new entry into the Bruckner files. Released on LSO Live, the two-disc affair encapsulates an outstanding premiere recording of Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs’s 2021 Anton Bruckner Urtext Gesamt-Ausgabe edition of Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major in its second version, which came into being between 1878 and 1881.

Alongside the mighty, seventy-minute symphony proper, the recording includes two discarded movements, that is to say Bruckner’s initial Scherzo, revised in 1876, and the Volksfest-Finale of 1878, both newly edited by Cohrs. Adding further depth, the extended initial version of Andante quasi Allegretto slow movement and the unabridged Finale, dating from 1878 and 1881, respectively, are also given as disc two ossias. Thus, taking their lead from Cohrs, Rattle and the LSO present the listener with a symphonic journey. Appropriately for Bruckner, the Romantic Symphony comes off as organically evolving musical process, rather than appearing as clear-cut, standalone item.

Caught on microphones in conjunction with rehearsals and performance in the Jerwood Hall at LSO St Luke’s, London on 5 October 2021, the symphony and its escorts are recorded with remarkable clarity, serving the notable dynamic scale and pristine articulation of the performances with flying colors.

Keeping up with chronology, let us begin by taking a look at Bruckner’s 1876 take on the symphony’s Scherzo, presented here as disc two opener. Imposing upon himself the task of revising the original 1873-74 version of the score, the composer started his quest by tidying up the third movement, only to learn that it should be dismantled altogether.

Although Bruckner’s second thoughts famously resulted in the spectacular open-air vistas of the ensuing Hunt-Scherzo, performed in its full splendor and sonic thrill by the orchestra under Rattle on disc one, its predecessor is not without merit either. First of all, the two movements could hardly be more different in conception or ambiance. In its initial guise, the Scherzo is built upon repeated incantations from solo horn, calling forth formidable responses from full orchestra, marked Sehr schnell. A summoning ritual, perhaps, the dramaturgy of the movements fascinatingly proto-minimalist, resulting in extended musical arch, interrupted by the brief Trio section, Im gleichen Tempo, followed by Scherzo da capo.

An outing of tremendous intensity and mounting drama, the movement makes quite an impact on the album, revealing glimpses of a parallel symphonic universe, in which fantastic nocturnal transpire according to its enthralling design.

Fast-forward two years, and we find the composer reworking his closing movement into its transitory version, known as the Volkfest Finale. More practicable than the original, Bruckner’s second Finale adopts a festive tone, albeit one of picturesque solemnity. Even though the music does not quite achieve the transfigured intensity of the 1881 version, the Volksfest attempt provides us with enhanced insight on the composer’s ever-evolving mindset, especially when performed with such magnificence as the members of the LSO do with Rattle at the helm.

Moving on to the second version proper, the album presentation allows the listener to enjoy the 1878-81 edition in various permutations. The integrated performance on disc one features the composer’s more concise realizations of movements two and four, whereas their unabridged counterparts are found on the second half of disc two. In case of Andante quasi Allegretto, the difference between the two versions clocks at 75 seconds, whereas in the Finale, over three minutes of performed music is taken away by the composer’s sanctioned cut.

In matters of taste and pondering, the listeners are invited to make their own choices. Be those as they may, pondering between different takes opens yet another new door into the symphonic process, as Rattle and the LSO deliver outstanding readings throughout the two-hour and seven-minute double-album.

In terms of dynamics, the quintessentially symphonic ensemble of duple winds, five horns, four trumpets, three trombones, bass trombone, tuba and strings is handled with refined intensity, yielding to an astounding expressive arch from almost otherworldly pianissimos to the uttermost heights of double and triple fortes, while remaining true to those ever-essential transformations in sonic character intertwined with Bruckner’s dynamic markings.

Whilst delving into the roots of the symphony’s second version is an endlessly fascinating affair, one is bound to acknowledge those perennial questions related to public presentations of musical works discarded by their composers. Had it been up to Schumann or Sibelius, the early versions of their symphonies in D minor (1841) and E-flat major (1914-15) would have remained withdrawn ad infinitum, instead of becoming guilty pleasures for audiences and musicians alike.

However, Bruckner may be considered a different case, somewhat, for regarding to most of his output, there is hardly such a thing as definitive version. Considering the Fourth, the composer went on to produce a third version in 1886, carrying out further revisions and modifications. Thus, the various stages of the 1878-81 score recorded here documents the central chapter in a symphonic triptych, gradually unfolded over a thirteen-year creative period.

The perfect companion piece to the 2021 Accentus release of the Bamberger Symphoniker and Jakub Hrůša performing Benjamin Korstvedt’s 2004-18 Neue Anton Bruckner Gesamtausgabe editions of the symphony’s three versions, the new LSO and Rattle album constitutes a milestone in the Bruckner discography. From the mist-hued horn-call opening of the first movement to its majestic tutti recaptulation on the closing bars of the Finale, the symphony is treated with devotion and craft, giving rise to an unforgettable sonic experience.

Perhaps the finest orchestral disc of 2022, the LSO Live recording is one to be cherished far and wide.

London Symphony Orchestra

Sir Simon Rattle, conductor

Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major ’Romantic’ (1873-74/1878-81; Cohrs A04B)

Anton Bruckner: [Discarded] Scherzo. Sehr schnell – Trio. In glechen Tempo – Scherzo da capo (1873-74/1876; Cohrs A04B-1)

Anton Bruckner: [Discarded] Finale (’Volksfest’). Allegro moderato (1878; Cohrs A04B-2

Anton Bruckner: Andante quasi Allegretto (1878; extended initial version; Cohrs A04B)

Anton Bruckner: Finale. Bewegt; doch nicht zu schnell (1881; unabridged)

Recorded in the Jerwood Hall at LSO St Luke’s, London on 5 October 2021

LSO Live LSO0875 (2022), 2 SACD

© Jari Kallio

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