29 July 2011

My Favourite Bruckner Recordings (episode 10) -- Symphony No. 4 in E flat Major -- Reflections

Symphony No. 4 (Romantic) is one of Bruckner's most popular symphonies, and hence it has been copiously recorded. As such it is a Herculean task to choose my favourite recordings of this symphony. In fact most of the recordings are of a high standard, and the choices will very much depend on personal taste. (Please read the Remarks at the bottom of the list as well.)

1874 Version

[Nowak (1975) edition]
Michael Gielen / SWF-Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden (4/1994)

(Intercord CD 860.925)

A brief review of this recording together with a brief history of the revisions Bruckner made for this symphony, resulting in the different versions, was posted in Nov 2009:

1878/1880 Version

[Haas (1944) edition]
Herbert Blomstedt / Staatskapelle Dresden (7-11/9/1981) 

(Denon COCQ-84539 HQCD)

(Dal Segno DSPRCD045)

This is Blomstedt's second Bruckner recording made under the cooperation of Denon, Japan and (VEB) Deutsche Schallplatten, Germany, the first being B7 recorded one year earlier. Recorded in the Lukaskirche, Dresden, it benefits from the excellent acoustic of the venue. The Staatskapelle Dresden is luminous here. The string sound is warm and the brass timbre is lovely. Blomstedt is musically expressive, without losing his usual prudence.

The HQCD sounds best among the 3 versions of the same recording that I have. The bass is more solid and the strings are even warmer. The whole recorded sound becomes more engaging and realistic. The Dal Segno CD is satisfactory in sound, but the Denon HQCD's is superior.

Otmar Suitner / Staatskapelle Berlin (1-2/1989)

(Berlin Classics 0011612BC)

(King KICC3533)

It is a digital recording made in Christuskirche, Berlin-Oberschöneweide, less than a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, in the former East Berlin. This church is well known for its excellent acoustics and had been at one time used solely as a studio for the VEB Deutsche Schallplatten Berlin before its community function was restored after the reunification of Germany. It should not be confused with the Jesus-Christus-Kirche (or Jesus Christ Church in English) in Berlin-Dahlem, situated in the former West Berlin, where many famous Deutsche Grammophon and Karajan recordings were made. The Christuskirche provides a very warm but transparent sound with good definition of the different instruments as evident in this recording. Otmar Suitner may not be very well-known in the West in the past, but his art has been gaining much appreciation thanks to an easier availability of his recorded legacy in CDs issued by Berlin Classics.

One of the key elements in his art is the naturalness and liveliness he brings to the music. This Bruckner 4th is an excellent example of it. The opening movement is truly "bewegt". There is not a hint of idiosyncracy in the interpretation, yet it is never bland. I'm much impressed by the sound and playing of the brass which is cultured yet also very incisive.  I'm lucky to have attended quite a number of concerts of the Staatskapelle Berlin and I hold the sound of this orchestra dear to my heart: the dark hue of the strings complemented by the sonorous cellos and basses, the Eastern European feel of the woodwinds and the cultured yet incisive brass described above. I affectionately depict its sound in my mind as analogous to amethyst gold. This recording has admirably captured this amethyst gold sound colour of this orchestra. 

When I compared this recording with Barenboim's 15/10/2008 live recording with the same orchestra (in-house label, SKB-0001), the difference is enormous. The orchestra still played superbly in the new recording, but Barenboim's management just verged on mannerism and over-inhibition. In the exposition of the Finale, the music is lively almost to the degree of being exorbitant under Suitner, whereas it becomes lame and lackadaisical in Barenboim's hands. 

A regular reader of this blog, eaquson from Taiwan, has told me the better sound quality of these VEB Deutsche Schallplatten recordings in CDs issued by other labels compared to those by Berlin Classics. This prompted me to try the Japanese version issued by King of this recording. The difference is not very obvious, maybe because my playback system is not up to it, but I can discern a more crystalline sound in the upper frequencies, a more powerful bass and better resolution of instruments in the middle frequencies. As this recording is one of my favourites, I think it is well worth the extra outlay.

Günter Wand / NDR Symphony Orchestra (28-30/10/2001)

(BMG 93041 2; 2-CD)

A certain type of recordings somehow seems predestined to remain in the memory of Brucknerites for aeons. The last studio or concert recordings of many conductors belong to this group. Wand's last recording of his concerts from 28 to 30 October 2001 of Bruckner's 4th Symphony certainly is one of them. Other examples that come to mind include Karajan's last B7, Jochum's last B5, and Sinopoli's and van Beinum's last and only B5.  These are all truly memorable recordings, and in the case of Karajan's and Jochum's, they pluck at your heart-strings that their respective earlier recordings didn't quite manage to do so at such intensity. Wand's BPO recording of B4 is a towering achievement and has become an indispensable part of my collection once I got it. This last recording of Wand's is no less essential. When I listened to it again recently, I was simply speechless with the performance, particularly the Andante where everything seemed so right in place, and I was just like a fool sitting there beaming with perfectly undiluted satisfaction with what I had just heard.

[Nowak (1953) edition]
Claudio Abbado / Lucerne Festival Orchestra (18-19/10/2006)

(Lucerne Festival Edition 120455)

Abbado's previous Bruckner recordings with VPO on DG have received some criticisms despite their merits, and for whatever reasons, his last commercial Bruckner recording was 15 years ago in 1996. After he left Berlin, his cooperation with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra transcended almost all his previous efforts to a sublime artistic level which many marvel at. His "new" Mahler recordings, now on DVD, with this orchestra were lauded as among the best, if not the best.  

This Bruckner 4th is also in the same league. Recorded live in Suntory Hall, Tokyo, and benefitted from its excellent acoustics, the sound is lush and warm yet at the same time limpid. If you agree to William Blake's idea that "exuberance is beauty", then this performance is utterly beautiful because it is a quintessential example of what exuberance is all about, in orchestral ensemble, sound and (Schubertian) colour, in musical expression and commitment, and in sheer radiance and exhibition of positive energy. 

Karl Böhm / Wiener Philharmoniker (19/11/1973)

(Decca Ovation 425 036-2)

This recording really needs no introduction to Brucknerites. The good things about his Bruckner 3rd recording with this orchestra on the same label can all apply to this justly famous recording. Its merits and the joy it brings to the listener are long lasting. 

Eugen Jochum / Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (3-5/10/1955 Mono)

(DG 469 389-2)

This mono recording is not handicapped by the technology of the time. Here Jochum leading his orchestra in the early post-war years has brought us a performance of immense sparkle and a recording in very good mono with fine details. The orchestral sonority has a great nostalgic feel to it, decorated with a sonorous lustre. There are many delicate touches by Jochum here, e.g. in the early part of the development (bars 193-216). The special thing about this recording among Jochum's many is the way he played the music, in a fine balance of blissful abandon and an intensity of spirit, from the pianissimos to the building up of climaxes. It is a joyful musical journey free of the unnecessary brooding that mars many other recordings. It is also a very smooth musical journey devoid of the stop-and-go stigma that was awarded to Jochum by many critics for his later efforts. But above all it is a musical journey that I'm more than happy to travel again and again.

Wolfgang Sawallisch / The Philadelphia Orchestra (3/1993)

(EMI CDC 5551192)

I posted this picture with a heavy heart because of the sad news that The Philadelphia Orchestra filed for bankruptcy just a few months ago -- an orchestra once famous all over the world for its golden sound has now become a failing business. An embittered irony; a disillusionment of the battle between art and business.

The choice of this disc is of course not because of Sawallisch's autograph. In fact it is the other way round. I loved this recording and so I asked him to autograph this particular CD booklet. Compared with their European counterparts, American orchestras (even the "Big 5") do not make many Bruckner recordings, and even fewer truly memorable ones. Not so for this one by Sawallisch. It is a slow burning affair. The first three movements get a no-nonsense treatment but still you can bathe yourself in the golden sound of the orchestra. However when it reaches the Finale, everything springs to life. Great recordings owe their greatness to great moments, and it is exactly the case here in the Finale. A glorious tribute to this famous orchestra.

1) The catalogue numbers are those of the CDs in my collection. There may be other versions of a particular recording by the same label or even other labels, with a different catalogue number.

2) Not included in the list are those 'sets' I considered en bloc; see episodes 3 (link) and 4 (link). Special mention must be made of Günter Wand's Berlin Philharmonic recording which is my best loved among all his BPO Bruckner recordings. 

3) Selections for this symphony are based on a database of a guilty number of 112 distinct recordings, excluding single movements, e.g. 1878 Volkfest Finale, and transcriptions.


  1. I always associate the blomstedt one with heart beat and sex ..the first movement

    Thanks for recommendation!


  2. That needs a fair share of imagination I suppose. But this sexual association is not unique to you. I've heard a few of my acquaintances mentioning their experience of sexual connotations when listening to Bruckner's symphonies.

  3. I think I will investigate the Sawallisch/Philadelphia B4 on your recommendation, Horace! Hope you are well & happy. Karafan.

    1. Hi Karafan,

      Thank you. I'm quite well. Hope you're well and happy as well.

      Happy listening -- to Bruckner,


  4. Dear All involved, IMHO, any kind of sexual reference or connontation seriously deprives the listener of the deeper spiritual experience (which is IMO the only way to approach his symphonies) and the grasp and understanding that first and foremost Bruckner was a tool handing down God's majesty in the form of his symphonies regardless of their thematic material. So don't let sexuality get in the way of truly and wholly experiencing the genius of Bruckner.

    1. Hello,
      I agree to your opinion completely. Thanks for your comments.
      Best regards,

  5. I feel awesome indeed to hear the latest release of Conductor Rudolf Barshai for Bruckner 4th Symphony, first time released by Tobu, really makes me puzzled indeed which edition Barshai really used for its recording....the booklet actually does not mention it at all.

    Hard to imagine that listening to Bruckner could link to sexuality, all I can hear and feel deeply is glacier and mountain after mountain (as if flying above), as well as the gothe-styled cathedral......