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Bruckner: Symphony No. 4.

Bruckner: Symphony No. 4. Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. EM10946 3 84723 2.

Like most conductors and record companies, Sir Simon Rattle and EMI continue to record most of their new material live. I suppose it has to do with finances, studio time being so expensive these days, although the artists would probably claim it has to do with capturing the spirit of the moment and all. Maybe, but you can't blame the companies involved for wanting to get live audiences to subsidize their recorded performances.

Oh, well, it does no serious harm. The sound is still all right, and you don't hear a noise from the listeners. EMI have even edited out the applause at the end, thankfully. Still, I couldn't help feeling that multiple run-throughs in the studio and subsequent judicious edits might have resulted in a more satisfying performance.

Anton Bruckner's Fourth Symphony was his first really successful big-scale work, but it didn't come easy. His first three symphonies were greeted with a lukewarm response, and it took him over half a dozen years to revise and work out the Fourth. Fortunately, when he did finally premiere it 1881, the public loved it, as listeners have loved it ever since. Bruckner himself nicknamed it "Romantic," and it became Bruckner's only program symphony. The composer tells us what each movement is supposed to represent, from knights riding out of a medieval castle at dawn to the sounds of the forest and birds, to a hunt, complete with horn calls, finally culminating in brilliant summary. The symphony easily communicates a grandeur and nobility of spirit, and Bruckner was, above all, a profoundly spiritual man, his music clearly illustrating this spirituality.

I wish I could say that Rattle's reading expresses all of Bruckner's spiritual fervor and picturesque tone painting, but, alas, for me it accomplishes only half the job. The first movement, with its knights galloping out into the mists, moved me not at all. In fact, I found it somewhat dull, not because Rattle takes it any slower than some other conductors but because he seems to be consciously trying too hard to make the music seem exalted, which the music can nicely do on its own, thank you. That goes for the second movement, Bruckner's tribute to Wagner's "Forest Murmurs," which under Rattle seems simply to go on forever. But then things pick up in the delightful Scherzo hunt, which contains genuine excitement, followed by a magnificently shaped Finale. So, perhaps if you don't mind half a great performance, or if you just love Rattle, you might be interested in this new release.

EMI recorded the sound in Berlin's Philharmonie during three nights of concerts in October, 2006. Engineer Mike Clements does a decent job under the circumstances, capturing a wide stereo spread and a reasonably good hall acoustic. However, don't expect the kind of transparency or detail you might hear in a good studio recording. I found too much upper-bass warmth and too much upper-midrange presence, with not quite enough information in the center of the tonal spectrum to avoid the impression of the audio being all highs and lows. Oh, well, again....
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Author:Puccio, John
Publication:Sensible Sound
Date:Aug 1, 2007
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