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CD Review

Anton Bruckner

Symphony #4

(with Volkfest finale)
Philharmonie Festiva/Gerd Schaller
Profil CD PH13049
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Gerd Schaller is the founder and artistic director of the Ebrach Summer Music Festival and the Philharmonie Festiva is the orchestra he has put together for the festival, primarily with musicians from the leading Munich orchestras. Together with the Philharmonie Festiva Schaller has already recorded a complete cycle of Bruckner symphonies. In this recording Schaller offers an unusual version of the 4th Symphony.

Bruckner's 4th Symphony is almost always heard in some form of the 1880 version, although an increasing number of conductors are trying to revive the original 1874 version. The 1880 version is basically the 1878 version with a new finale (the symphony's third). The original (as it were!) 1878 version was written with what he entitled the Volkfest (People's Festival) finale. It is the 1878 version with the Volkfest finale that Gerd Schaller and the Philharmonie Festiva play on this intriguing recording.

The Volkfest finale has not received a huge amount of attention. It was not even published until 1936, when it appeared as an appendix to Robert Haas's edition. Another edition was produced by Leonard Nowak in 1981. There are a few recordings in which it features as a filler (e.g. Tintner's recording of the Study Symphony), but this is one of a very small number of recordings that offers us the whole of the 4th Symphony as Bruckner conceived it between 1878 and 1880.

Schaller's Bruckner is majestic, rather than monumental or mystical. The tempi are steady and we see a slow build up of tension rather than a spiky series of climaxes. Many recordings of the 4th are more jagged, but the overall impression here is of the slow unveiling of a lengthy musical argument. The internal logic of the argument is familiar, of course, up to the end of the third movement. At which point the Volkfest finale begins.

For most Bruckner enthusiasts I imagine that the first hearing will be rather disconcerting. The Volkfest finale initially sounds much less substantial than the 1880 finale and there are moments that seem almost trite. It did grow on me after a couple of listenings, however. The Volkfest is in some ways better proportioned than the 1880 finale, which can seem out of balance relative to the rest of the symphony. It also has some particularly fine moments, particularly the close in which all the principal themes come together in a classic Brucknerian peroration.

The 1878 version will not replace the 1880 version, I am confident – or even the 1874 version. But it is well worth listening to as part of an entire performance, rather than as a "bleeding chunk". Bruckner himself found it compelling enough for a couple of years and although he was almost certainly correct to prefer the later version of the finale, he was also correct not to reject it. This disc is a valuable testament to an important stage in Bruckner's evolution as a symphonist.

Copyright © 2014, José Luis Bermúdez