On Record – Bamberger Symphoniker / Jakub Hrůša – Bruckner 4: The Three Versions (Accentus)

Bruckner (ed. Korstvedt)
Symphony no. 4 in E flat major ‘Romantic’ – 1874, rev. 1875/6; 1878-80, rev, 1881; 1887, rev. 1888. Finales – 1878 ‘Volksfest’; 1881. Earlier drafts and versions

Bamberger Symphoniker / Jakub Hrůša

Accentus Music ACC30533 [four discs, four hours 34 minutes]
Producers: Sebastian Braun, Bernhard Albrecht; Engineers: Markus Spatz, Christian Jaeger
Date: November 2020 at Joseph-Keilberth-Saal, Konzerthalle, Bamberg

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Jakub Hrůša directs the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra – whose chief conductor he has been since 2016 – in this survey of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony: three ‘versions’ of the complete work, together with two additional versions of the finale plus over a dozen sundry excerpts.

What’s the music like?

Evidently this project had its basis in a period of lockdown during the Covid pandemic, thus enabling a focus on one specific piece such as would have been unfeasible under more usual working conditions. How one responds to it depends, firstly, on how one sees the legitimacy of the ever-increasing editions of Bruckner symphonies; secondly, on the qualities – whether interpretative or executive – of these performances. Certainly, the identity of this conductor with this composer – whose music he has not previously recorded – can hardly be gainsaid.

Undoubtedly the highlight here is the 1874 version, of which this is the first recording in its 1876 revision – significant in that Bruckner clearly intended for the work to be heard in this guise, rather than its being a ‘first attempt’ shelved on completion. Hrůša might have taken the opening movement at a swifter underlying tempo, but its relatively prolix course is well articulated; as is that of the Andante whose course might seem circuitous compared to later versions, but which eschews discursiveness even so. Its close, moreover, provides a catalyst for the scherzo: too often dismissed as a failure, but recklessly imaginative in its expressive character and benefitting here from the revision’s excision of those pauses between sections. Even finer here is the finale, one whose supposedly lightweight content belies its rhythmic propulsion or a stealthily accumulating momentum unequalled by either revision – certainly not in so viscerally energetic a coda. The Bambergers give their all, while confirming that what Bruckner got wrong here was not necessarily put right in either of those later versions.

The 1878-80 version has become the preferred option in the post-war era, the streamlined trajectories of its initial two movements being more easily absorbed by listeners and more comfortably navigated by the musicians. Without yielding any revelations, Hrůša has their measure – not least a magisterially projected coda in the former or an inexorable approach   to the latter’s climax. The spacious acoustic of Joseph-Keilberth-Saal endows a convincing overall perspective but not the ultimate clarity, such as marginally obscures cross-rhythmic interplay of the brass during the Scherzo’s cumulative passages but ensures an ethereal aura in its trio. The Finale emerges broadly and patiently: maybe too much depending on whether one hears this version as the natural outcome of its music’s thematic potential, or an attempt to make this movement a weightier and more serious culmination that leaves an inevitable self-consciousness in its wake. Hrůša seems to have his doubts, though not in a fervent and headily cumulative account of what is undeniably among the most eloquent Bruckner codas.

The 1888 version is that by which earlier generations came to know this piece, making its latter-day rehabilitation the vindication of Bruckner’s final thoughts or an editorial cash-in according to vantage. Whether or not determined primarily by the composer or by his self-appointed acolytes, the cloyingly enriched harmony or theatrical reorchestrations speak of     a desire to ‘sell’ the ‘Romantic’ as a would-be-Wagnerian equivalent to the symphonies of Brahms. Qualities, moreover, which Hrůša tacitly acknowledges in a dependable but often detached reading – tacitly underlining the myriad textural changes without ever seeking to condone them. Neither does he shirk from following those inane truncations as the Scherzo proceeds into then out of its trio, such as conductors who otherwise adhered to this version were wont to ignore, nor the excisions meted out on the Finale as only serve to fracture an already unwieldy and formally disjunct design. As with the final revisions of his first three symphonies, this is worth hearing in context but not as means to any deeper appreciation.

The fourth disc consists of 14 excerpts, mainly of variants from the second version Bruckner amended during the revision process. Few will need to hear these more than twice, as is also true of an 1881 finale differing only incrementally from that found in the main performance (and which would have been more worthwhile had it featured the coda’s 1886 amendment). More valuable is the inclusion of the Volksfest finale as originally intended for the second version, and which Bruckner rightly recognized as a transitional version towards one that he was never to get quite right. As it stands, though, this alternation between the humorous and portentous makes an engaging piece in its own right; one that could even now find favour as a concert overture or even symphonic poem such as the composer never actually envisaged.

Does it all work?

That depends on whether you regard it as legitimate to release a set as contains three versions of just one piece. Editorial reservations as there are focus on whether Benjamin Korstvedt has exceeded his remit by presenting his editions as being of comparable validity, which is hardly unknown in latter-day academic practice (Simon Rattle’s account of this work, due from LSO Live, takes a similar if less inclusive approach using the editions of Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs). As to performances, those who already have accounts of the 1874 version by Michael Gielen (SWF Music) or Simone Young (Oehms Classics), the 1887 version by Osmo Vänskä (BIS) and 1878-80 version by upward of a dozen conductors can rest content. Hrůša is evidently a Bruknerian of note, however, and his perspective on this piece is well worth getting to know.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The presentation, four discs in a slipcase plus a booklet featuring detailed notes from Korstvedt and a thoughtful interview with the conductor, is stylishly economical. Those most redoubtable among the ‘usual suspects’ might dissent, but this project is its own justification. Note too that Hrůša and the Bamberg have a recording of the ‘First’ Symphony by Hans Rott – now regarded as the aesthetic link between Bruckner and Mahler, pertinently coupled here with the former’s Symphonic Prelude and the latter’s Blumine – due out on DG this October.

For further information on this release, you can visit the Accentus website, and you can purchase by clicking on the link from Presto Music. Click on the names for more information on the Bamberg Symphoniker and their chief conductor Jakub Hrůša

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