Anton Bruckner: Symphony n° 4 in E-Flat major, WAB 104 (Haas Edition)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Christian Thielemann (conductor)
Recording: Salzburg Festival, Grosses Festspielhaus (August 19–22, 2020) – 70’
Sony Classical G010004595470V – Booklet in English and German
This will be a brief review, and that I find less than usual to say here is to the credit of all involved in this production. The Fourth Symphony is easily the best thing yet in Thielemann’s unfolding Bruckner cycle with the Vienna Philharmonic. Perhaps the conductor is especially attached to this work, which as he observes in the notes was the first Bruckner symphony he conducted; his earlier Dresden recording on Profil is similarly impressive. Whatever the case may be, this is a work whose contours align almost ideally with the conductor’s general interpretive approach. It is music of great drama, but at least on the surface little turbulence; dramatic tension mostly arises from gradations of mystery and grandeur, and the foreboding that ensues when we are encountered with them.
As might be expected by now, Thielemann does not try to make the work’s real climaxes as explosive as possible, although he does not stint on their visceral impact. There is none of the roughness or spontaneity of expression that tended to lend this work a kind of rustic charm in some of its earlier recorded outings; everything is highly polished. But within that framework, Thielemann and the orchestra work quiet wonders of color and expression. Fortes have requisite breadth and alternate seamlessly with lyrical passages, which are, in turn, exquisitely etched (where some may prefer a heartier and less delicate approach). The attention to dynamic variation and contrast is exceptional and always natural, with many breathtakingly phrased pianissimos. The immaculately blended playing of the Vienna orchestra is, as ever, a tremendous asset: just listen to, for instance, the low brass underpinning of the great chorales that dot the work, or the truly golden wind playing in the slow movement. Throughout it all, Thielemann’s patient yet firm pacing lets the music yield its charms naturally yet with no lack of spine. The Fourth is probably the most often recorded Bruckner, and it has enjoyed any number of excellent representations, but this can stand among them without apology.