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SACD Review

Anton Bruckner

Symphony #4 in E Flat Major "Romantic"

Bavarian State Orchestra/Kent Nagano
Sony Classical SACD 88697368812 Hybrid Multichannel
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As I had nothing good to say about the 1888 Edition of this magnificent work, I thought I would revisit the 1874 original. Frankly, I've never been crazy about this version, either. Unlike the 1888 version (BIS SACD-1746) which sounds basically the same as the 1880 Edition that every sane listener seems to prefer, the original is radically different in sound and feel. While I have written that people record the 1874 for "the sake of having the original on hand" and also stated that comparing Bruckner editions is a "supreme waste of time", I must confess that this is a terrific disc.

First of all, Kent Nagano clearly believes in the score, and that makes a big difference. But unlike the 1888 Edition – which feels like a cheap restoration of a painting we all know and love – there are significant alterations here that must be taken into account. In other words, you cannot play the 1874 the same way you would the 1880. There are too many emotional and dynamic contrasts. Nagano understands this, and thankfully doesn't attempt to weigh down the score with profundity that it simply lacks at this point in time. The first movement could in fact be a touch more unbuttoned, but otherwise the conductor hardly could do better given the nature of the material.

Secondly, the Bavarian State Orchestra is fabulous. Lesser orchestras who tackle this music (like the Bruckner Orchestra Linz on Arte Nova) tend to be markedly inferior bands with markedly inferior conductors. Not here. Though Nagano typically works with the DSO Berlin, these players are just as fine. The brass in the work's final movement are thrilling, and the strings and winds are full of confidence. Sony's sound is astonishingly natural, allowing the details of the original to emerge in ways I never thought possible. The orchestra plays with the kind of nervous energy and commitment that you so rarely hear from the bigger name orchestras in Germany these days.

Are there problems? Well, the Scherzo is completely unremarkable even compared to the 1888 version, and frankly the 1880 Edition still sounds better as a whole. Bruckner's insecurities have certainly given conductors a lot to work with, but the question remains; should they? Performances like this may not entirely convince us regarding the composers' original thoughts, but at least the effort is justified by the magnificence on display.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman