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AN 2 9916

Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 in E flat major, "Romantic" (WAB 104)

Composers
Release date March 11, 2008
Album code AN 2 9916
Periods Romantic

Album information

The wind whispering through the leaves, barely concealing the whimpers of a newborn child in the village of Ansfelden in Upper Austria on September 4, 1824, seems to echo from afar the soft rustling that opens Beethoven’s Ninth, given earlier that year in Vienna on May 7. Just such a nebula (as Robert Simpson calls it) of tremolo strings ushers in, as in many of his movements, the “Romantic” Fourth Symphony by Anton Bruckner, son of a modest schoolmaster-organist from that peaceful little town south of Linz.

Man is no silent onlooker of Creation: he answers nature’s song with a call of his own. While Beethoven had sounded in the strings a series of falling fifths and fourths in dotted rhythm, Bruckner enlists the horn (for whom the E flat of this symphony is a most propitious key), then the winds, to signal the reveille. With greater composure and in broader strokes, but like Beethoven’s in dotted rhythm, Bruckner’s initial motif is altered the second time around from a descending fifth to a minor sixth, the interval’s first note being raised to C flat. Already, the pervading E flat major is blurred with a hint of minor, even though this is Bruckner’s first symphony in a major mode.
Lofty design, love of nature, and the ambiance, so to speak, inherited from the beginning of Beethoven’s Ninth (which Bruckner first heard in 1866) are all elements that parallel to a measure the Titan from Bonn and the rustic organist who in his adopted Vienna would never quite fit in. These elements also help explain the title “Romantic” given to the Fourth by Bruckner himself as early as the primitive form of the symphony in 1874. The first two movements of that version were to remain mostly unchanged, except for a few minor revisions, throughout all future revisions of the work.

The premiere of Symphony No. 4, in its revised version of 1878/80, took place in Vienna on February 20, 1881, under the baton of Hans Richter. Apparently as an afterthought, Bruckner had hinted at a program for the symphony, which we will discreetly evoke. “The day is announced by the horn,” wrote Bruckner to the conductor Hermann Levi in 1884 concerning the first movement’s Hauptthema (main theme). Seemingly naïve, such programmatic indications cannot detract from the grand aspirations of the work, which could just as well do without them. It is also important to dispel the idea that Bruckner’s legendary candour (which saw the composer tip Richter after a satisfying rehearsal of the Fourth), along with an alleged weakness of character, affected his lucid appraisal of the integrity of his own works, particularly the symphonies. We will see how far too widely and injudiciously this notion has been impressed since the end of the 1930s.

A most confident-sounding motif continues the exposition of the movement, marked Ruhig bewegt (nur nicht schnell) [Peacefully agitated (but not fast)]. The propulsive aspect of the tempo marking is found in the ever so typically Brucknerian rhythmic contour of this ascending motif, immediately repeated descending, until it magnificently combines in the first fortissimo passage played by the whole orchestra. Even at this early point in the work, Bruckner’s often mentioned “cathedralesque” sound world is evident, in which superb brass writing contrasts with the refined complexity of more intimate or calm passages. It has regularly been written how this fervent Catholic, organist of the Linz Cathedral, composed according to his nature, in blocks of contrasting registrations with an eye (and an ear) on eternity. This is a manner he never forwent, even when he later retouched, alone or with collaborators, details of orchestration—a discipline, incidentally, he studied with Otto Kitzler, a Wagnerite who had introduced him to Tannhäuser.

Bruckner begins with finesse the second, contrasting part of the exposition, a section he fittingly calls Gesangsperiode (song period) in his outer movements. The strings and winds share a charming motif that Bruckner likens to “the song of the great tit,” in counterpoint to warbling and tender lines. It is in Gesangsperioden such as this that one feels time expanding, a grand moment of respite during which unhurriedly to absorb everything the composer has to offer. Contrary to Beethoven and the other Viennese by adoption Bruckner so admired (Haydn and Mozart, of whom he is also a follower in many respects), his formal constructions are not fuelled by dramatic impulse, except to a certain degree his scherzos. Instead, he lays out a path that crosses great expanses, or sits the listener at the center of a spacious structure he has the time to grasp and admire. The present Gesangsperiode opens on the third “subject group” of the exposition that puts into play (actually, already develops) both the propulsive motif of the beginning and the graceful song that followed.

The development as such begins ever so softly, and displays among other qualities the masterful writing technique Bruckner so laboriously and conscientiously acquired. Listen to how he especially deploys the initial horn signal and the propulsive motif: they are heard in stretto, inversed, in diminution, variously combined, and leading to one of those famous passages he writes in chorale style for the brass. He certainly owes his command of writing technique in great part to the strict correspondence courses he took with the exacting Simon Sechter of Vienna, whom Schubert is also known to have consulted. After a soothing lull, the recapitulation brings on the Hauptthema, now for two horns at the octave embellished notably with melismata by the flute and muted first violins… this very last touch (the muted violins) bringing us to open that dreaded Pandora’s box known as the “Bruckner Problem” concerning the versions of his symphonies.

Here as elsewhere, the orchestration heard in the present recording is that of the 1888 version of the Fourth, which corresponds to the edition prepared in 1889 by Albert J. Gutmann, reissued with corrections in 1890 (see the note by Jean-Philippe Tremblay below). It differs substantially in several respects to the versions commonly performed over the past 70 years: The first is the Robert Hass edition of 1936 (corrected in 1944), based on the autograph manuscript of the 1878/80 version Bruckner had in 1893 bequeathed in his will to what is now the Austrian National Library; the second is the Leopold Nowak edition of 1953, which has as its basis the version Bruckner sent in 1886 to the conductor Anton Seidl of New York, now in the collections of Columbia University. From Bruckner’s death on October 11, 1896 up until the Haas edition, the only edition used and indeed known was the original one, which Bruckner had prepared with his pupils Ferdinand Löwe and Franz Schalk, and in all probability Josef Schalk. These men have long been accused of manipulating Bruckner into modifying his works. Yet, although it is true that as of 1892-93 the composer began suspecting they were acting behind his back (which proved ever more correct), work on the first edition as of 1887 was in this case a collaborative effort. This is attested by the Stichvorlage (engraver’s copy) on which clearly appear Bruckner’s “regulating” (as he calls it) of his pupils’ work as well as other important emendations in his own hand. This version was even given the benefit of a performance on January 22, 1888, again under Richter, with Bruckner’s approval and careful attention during rehearsals. This 1888 Stichvorlage version was published in 2004 alongside the Hass and Nowak editions in the authoritative critical collected works edition. Under the editorship of Benjamin Korstvedt, it corresponds overall to the first Gutmann edition, restoring it to a legitimate place alongside the 1878/80 autograph version.

Muted violins… they were absent in the 1878/80 version, but on the other hand, the kettledrums have disappeared here from the passage. It must then be left to the listener which version he or she prefers (perhaps more than one). Happily, all versions end the movement gloriously with the initial call on all four horns.

The second movement, an Andante in C minor, simply offers “song,” according to Bruckner. This he knew well, having practiced it in childhood, then later with friends at the St. Florian Monastery, and having suffused his sacred works with it so sublimely. Equally sublime is the manner in which he here alternates two progressively ornate manifestations of song. The first, initially played by the cellos and later by the horns and winds, sometimes in mirror form, is admirably ample and covers a wide tessitura. It is reminiscent of the first movement in its leaps of fifths and its dotted rhythm, which underscores the march-like pace. The second song-theme, less solemn but more mysterious, is unfolded principally by the violas over a pizzicato march from the other strings, in a sort of almost spoken arioso with its hesitant and questioning phrases. The answer always seems to lie in the reprise of the first song, around which Bruckner weaves an ever more elaborate web of sound. Like his distant Viennese predecessors often did, the composer ends the movement on the tonic major.

The third movement opens on the famous “hunt” scherzo (Bruckner’s word, again) marked Bewegt, in B flat major. The horns, progressively joined by the trumpets, trombones, and tuba, signal that the hunters are up to the chase with a motif simultaneously combining the propulsive “Brucknerian” rhythm, the dotted upbeat, and the downward interval (a fourth instead of a fifth), all derived from the first movement. The surging energy of the music occasionally gives way to more serene passages, but picks up again only to subside into the G-flat major Trio, marked Gemächlich (Peacefully). A kind of Ländler for the resting hunting party, it mainly pairs flute and clarinet. The Scherzo is afterwards repeated in an abridged form, but ends this time in the clamorous joy of the entire orchestra.
It is necessary here to note the important, mainly structural differences between the present and previous versions. To begin with, Bruckner had discarded his 1874 Scherzo when he revised the work in 1878, replacing it with this Jagd-Scherzo (Hunt Scherzo) that he modified again for the first published version. Apart from the pairing of oboe and clarinet in the Trio and the absence of the piccolo in the rest of the movement, the 1878/80 autograph version most notably contains a complete da capo of the Scherzo, and the final, boisterous coda rounds it off both times. Some have considered the omission of 65 measures in the Gutmann edition as a most unfortunate concession on Bruckner’s part, but he indeed approved the cut. Moreover, prior to the dissemination of the 1878/80 autograph version, such an eminent commentator as Sir Donald Tovey, in the mid-1930s, had found the “extremely effective short cut […] highly dramatic.”

In 1878, Bruckner had replaced the 1874 Finale with a movement entitled Volksfest (Funfair). As early as December 1880, he replaced it again with the Finale we now know and which along with the other movements from 1878 was performed at the premiere. Reworked, this is the Finale of the Gutmann edition. Menacingly, the strings introduce this Mäßig bewegt (Moderately agitated) with a B-flat minor pedal over which horn and clarinet sound their lugubrious three-note call. Following an extreme rise in tension where rhythms and intervals condense and fragment, the call becomes the head-motif of the movement’s massive main theme. This also marks the return of the home key of E flat major, as well as that ominous note, C flat, which had so perturbed the beginning of the symphony and will deliver its last jabs in the penultimate measures before the work’s final triumph. The theme also blends the symphony’s elemental matter, namely the short upbeat, the triplet from the Scherzo, and the famous Brucknerian rhythm in augmented note values. The climax of this first section introduces a new feature: a cymbal crash that prepares a quote of the horn motif from the first movement, now played by all the brass. The cymbals are heard twice again, but pianissimo, just prior to the grand coda. This instrument is absent from the work’s earlier versions, although several conductors elect to insert the first forte crash. The piccolo, also absent from the other versions, again colours the louder passages.

A generous Gesangsperiode offers the opportunity to note a markedly romantic feature that owes nothing to any sort of program (of which this movement is devoid), namely the contiguousness of the major and minor modes, a procedure so close in spirit to Schubert. Various motifs in the themes of this “song period” (conspicuously related, by the way, to other themes in the work) frequently waver between major and minor, giving the harmony a prismatic quality.

A vast development section ensues where the head-motif appears in many guises and combines with the main theme of the Gesangsperiode, displaying the incredible technical prowess Bruckner had gained as a master of fugal organ improvisation. To the surprise (or dismay) of those who are well acquainted with the now standard Haas or Nowak editions of the symphony, the 1888 Stichvorlage version omits the restatement of the Finale’s Hauptthema and presents a modified transition towards the recapitulation of the second theme. Bruckner, though, approved this cut, and had asked for an even greater cut in this region of the movement, from measures 351 to 430, the same year as the work’s premiere in a repeat performance led by Felix Mottl on December 10, 1881.

The long coda then begins, as a road from self-doubt to rapture. It is as if Bruckner wished to free himself from the anxiety inflicted by the merciless Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick, who worsened his own misgivings, to finally bask in the glow of public approval and of thanksgiving. It begins as a murmuring, oscillating string tremolo over which the winds play the Finale’s initial motif in simultaneous contrary motion, then opens on a melodic extension eventually withdrawing onto itself just before trumpets and cymbals discreetly herald the start of the grandiose final crescendo. Here, the string oscillations rise stepwise in ecstatic double appoggiaturas, reaching full orchestral climax on the symphony’s germinal rhythm.

© Jacques-André Houle

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A Note on the Version
by Jean-Philippe Tremblay

The choice of an edition for the present recording of Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 is certainly the result of careful thought and research, but above all, the aim was to discover (or rediscover) an edition that had been used by Bruno Walter and Toscanini. Was it the right one? The purpose is not here to take a stand on what the “definitive” edition is, but rather—keeping in mind the educational context for the young musicians of the Orchestre de la Francophonie canadienne—to explore different possibilities, different choices. I settled on an edition after consulting a reproduction of the 1889 edition and carefully listening to two recordings, including Walter on Columbia. What counted here was the spirit of discovery.

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