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CD Review

Anton Bruckner

Symphony #4 "Romantic" in E Flat Major (1880)

Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Georg Tintner
Naxos 8.554128
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I live in the perfect home to listen to Bruckner. Our living/dining/listening area has large windows that face east, south, and west. We live atop a hill, surrounded by hundred-year-old trees. It is March in Ohio and I can see brown woods stretched out below gray skies as snow flurries about.

I live where clouds are born and that is exactly what this recording brings to mind. I have not been as moved by a performance since hearing Bruno Walter's recording. (I once had the Odyssey LP. I discovered, to my horror, that I do not have the CD recording. I have to remedy that.) If I were to enumerate every single detail that I like about this recording this review would assume the proportions of Moby Dick. So, if you want you can save a lot of time reading my digressions and immediately go and buy this disc. On the other hand, I do include a "discussion" with Georg following this; so stay tuned. Throughout the recording Tintner screws the tension taut, and then the release is cataclysmic. Woodwinds, as usual with Naxos recordings, are a constant delight. The brass has a burnished glow to its sound. Tempo fluctuations within movements keep me on my toes and smiling at their natural ebb and flow. The balance between strings and brass, something accomplished by the conductor's seating and sense of relief is perfect. The sound is almost tactile – in fact, it stimulates that region in the back of my brain that I find so pleasurable.

Whenever I am as overwhelmed by a listening experience, as here, I check the other recordings I have to hear if I am as overwhelmed as I think I am. This Naxos recording easily outclasses the Sawallisch/Philadelphia recording on EMI. Jochum and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, on DG, come close to eliciting the excitement you will hear here, but only close. It's interesting that Tintner's slower tempi don't seem slower at all and by gamboling a bit he is able to let us smell the flowers as we stroll.

Tintner has made me hear this music anew. There is a raw, earthy smell to matters. For once I was not constantly thinking, "If Wagner had written symphonies they would have sounded like this." In fact, if anyone comes to mind it is Schubert's last two symphonies. I can also detect whence Mahler got some of the bucolic moments. That is, this is Bruckner in the flesh. This is not just good for the price, it is good at any price.

While working on this review I also happened to get involved in an email "chat" with Georg Tintner. I happened to post a message as part of a thread on a conversation about conductors using batons. I mentioned that as far as I could see, in a series of photos in a Gramophone article, Georg Tintner did not use one. A few days later I got an email from his wife, Tanya, confirming this fact. As it was put, he quit using a baton 30 years ago because he felt it was getting in the way of the music. (I should mention that he made it clear that he does not like to be addressed at Maestro. He told me that he feels the appellation should be reserved for conductors like Furtwängler and Walter.) What follows are his comments on Bruckner and recording. Before you read this he will check the copy for approval.

I asked his opinion of the role of a conductor and about his approach to Bruckner and other composers he likes.

"The conductor, after having absorbed the piece he wants to conduct to the best of his ability, must try his utmost to discern the intention of the composer, but that doesn't mean that he should forget his own musical personality. So, I believe he has to convey what he feels about the work, provided it is not in flagrant contradiction to what the author has said in the score. When I study a score I do not consciously think of the total personality of its composer, but I cannot completely ignore him. If I study a Dvořák Symphony I do not consciously remind myself that he had a passion for railways and knew the number of every train that arrived or left the Prague main station. It is part of the totality of the man, but not necessarily inherent in the music. Furthermore, it is obvious to me that we don't feel music that has been written a long time ago the same way as the contemporaries of the composer would have felt; therefore I have comparatively little time for the purely historical approach.

"I think the role of the conductor is to convey his feelings and his understanding of the work at hand to his players or singers, and thereby convey it also to the audience. So it seems to me the most important thing for the conductor, apart from absorbing and studying the work, is that he has the capacity to convey his feelings about the work to his collaborators. Not every musician, not even every great musician, has this faculty, and we all know that for instance Schumann, whose music I adore, did not have this particular quality. In my opinion there is not one particular way of interpreting a masterpiece, because as I said before it also depends upon the interpreter."

I had mentioned to Georg that in listening to his recordings I also compared others and learned that, confirming what he said about interpretations, that many conductors seem to only scratch the surface of the music. Minute details Georg brings out are not apparent in others, they seem to be playing all the notes, but not all the music. Of course in some cases this has a lot to do with the edition the conductor chooses to use. Georg's comments follow.

"You rightly say there are particular problems in the conducting of Bruckner because all his life he retained the mentality of an altar-boy, which he was in his childhood. All too often he thought that his talented pupils and other admirers knew more than he did. Therefore there are many insoluble problems in his interpretations. I only want to give you one example, which I often mention in this connection: Bruckner was 60 years old when he composed his first success, the 7th Symphony. His brilliant pupil, Nikisch, who conducted its first performance, begged him and practically blackmailed the master to add a cymbal stroke and other percussion to the climax in the Adagio. As Bruckner added only a very artful piece of calligraphy to his original score, it is quite obvious that he gave in to the pleading of Nikisch. So it is quite clear that if one wants to conduct Bruckner and not Nikisch, one should leave the percussion out. But when he wrote the next symphony, and I speak of the original version of #8, he added in the score at a similar climax, no less than six cymbal strokes. These are absolutely grotesque in my opinion, but as he actually wrote it, I have to do it, though it is obvious that it is still influenced by Nikisch's pleading in #7. This is only one example of the dilemma one encounters in this master. All we can do, as Haas has done, is to try to eliminate influences of his well-meaning but misguided friends and admirers.

"My love for Bruckner started in the Vienna Boy's Choir when we regularly sang the three great masses with the men of the State Opera Chorus and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under excellent conductors, among those the famous Fanz Schalk. But also his symphonies I heard quite frequently. There were several conductors who specialized in Bruckner's music, among those was a Leopold Reichbein and Oswald Kabasta apart from the great ones like Klemperer, Furtwängler and Bruno Walter.

"You ask what was and is the attraction of his music. I can only explain it by what I called before his 'spiritual ecstasy' which makes me feel good and at one with the cosmos. Although there are sections, especially in #8 and #9 which disclose a troubled and sometimes agonized mind. Let me add the glorious sound in his original orchestration and the limitless flow of wonderful melodies and that explains my passion for his music.

"While I am not particularly impressed with purely historical approaches, I insist that in all works written before about as far as the First World War, to have the Second Violins on my right, because the antiphonal effect between the two groups of violins is of the utmost importance in Classical and Romantic music. This is lost almost completely if the violins sit all together."

I also asked him about his feelings about recording and how he came to do the Bruckner Cycle for Naxos. While visiting Hong Kong, Tanya, Georg's wife, indicated she wanted to approach Klaus Heymann about the possibility of Georg doing a recording for Naxos possibly Bruckner. At the last minute Tintner decided to go with his wife. Heymann seemed to take an instant liking to the conductor. After some discussion, Heymann startled and delighted the two by saying, "I think you should do all the symphonies, in all the versions, and the choral works with orchestra."

Finally, in the process of our discussions I asked if there were any future plans for a Schumann or Brahms cycle for Naxos. Tanya and Georg did not know of any plans, but I emailed Klaus urging him to consider these possibilities. His reply was, "Brahms is a possibility, Schumann is not." We can hope. I urge my readers to consider writing Klaus and seconding my suggestions.

Copyright © 1999, Robert Stumpf II