This is a noble interpretation and a beautifully natural recording of the final version of the Bruckner Symphony 4. It is in Benjamin Korstvedt's 2005 edition for the International Bruckner Society.
If this seems a tad pedantic, this information really does matter because there are THREE major versions of Bruckner 4 that are now available on CD and this one has not had an easily available modern stereo recording until now, despite being the version recorded by Knappertsbusch and Furtwaengler in the 1950's.
The current CD holds music that was wildly out of fashion with the Bruckner critics from about 1935 until 2000 (give or take a few years). The late Deryck Cooke called this version "...an abominable bowdlerisation [by the Schalk Brothers and Loewe] that does not reflect Bruckner's authentic vision and should be immediately discarded." And that is what the editors of the Bruckner Critical Edition of the International Bruckner Society (Robert Haas and later Leopold Nowak) most certainly believed. Anybody coming to Bruckner in the 1960's, when reasonable recordings started to appear, was taught that the first published editions were false versions. This meant that although from about 1890 to 1935 the version on this CD was the one that was performed, it became a tenet of critical belief that research into earlier manuscripts had uncovered the "real" or "Originalfassung" (original version) of this symphony and that this "original" version was "pure" compared to the "adulterated" version in the First Published Edition that had held sway up to that time. Even now CD booklets label Bruckner symphonies with the phrase "Original Version" from time to time.
But the version on this disc has been shown by Korstvedt's recent research to have been strongly supervised by Bruckner himself and prepared for a performance in 1891. The intention would have been to "improve" the music but that is a matter that has huge critical implications and it is not possible to address that here.
What potential buyers need to know at this point is that this is a powerful and noble version of the "Romantic" Symphony very beautifully played and recorded. And for those who worry about this sort of thing, the Version in this edition is completely "authentic Bruckner" (as are, actually, all the other Versions mentioned in this review).
At the least, just like in the 1890 Vienna Version of Symphony 1, the 1889 Version of Symphony 3 and the 1890 Version of Symphony 8, this 1888 Version of Symphony 4 represents the last written wishes of the composer, for whatever reason. This will matter more to people who think that there is "one right" version than to those who rejoice that there are actually three major versions of Symphony 4, each rather different and each available today. Remember, in 1935 this music was NOT available in multiple versions or relatively cheap recordings. These days it is possible to have good recordings of all the versions, to see the development of the composer's thought in the music and to revel in the riches uncovered by scholars and conductors.
There is a difference between VERSIONS and EDITIONS. In the case of the Romantic Symphony there are THREE MAJOR VERSIONS:
1874 First Concept Version
1878 - 80 First Revised Version [First Performed Version]
1888 Final Revised Edition
But then it gets more complicated. For example, there is an interim version of the Finale from 1878 known as the "People's (i.e. Volks) Festival" which Bruckner abandoned for the first performance (by Richter) in 1881, replacing it with the 1880 version. Hence this 1878 - 80 version, the one that has been the most performed for about 70 years, has a Finale that seems just a little out of balance witht he rest of the music. This is one of the things that the 1888 revision sets out to trim back, and the Finale on this Vanska disc is wonderfully well handled and very integrated. But what I have called the "First Revised Version 1878 - 80" had more work done to it for a possible performance in New York in 1885. The differences between the Haas Edition of the 1878 - 80 Version and the Nowak edition of what might be thought to be the same music, come from using these different texts. Most recordings of Bruckner 4 are actually one or other of the incarnations of this First Revised Version.
The 1874 Original Concept Version has a different Scherzo and is a much more complicated piece of music with layer on layer of counter themes and developments. In the right hands this can be very stimulating like Simone Young Bruckner, A.: Symphony No. 4, "Romantic" (Original 1874 Version) (Hamburg Philharmonic, S. Young)
(available as a download: get link for CD from that page as I cannot at present insert a direct product link from Amazon), Russel-Davies Bruckner - Symphony No 4 (1874 Version)
or Norrington Bruckner - Symphony No 4
It was never published or performed in Bruckner's lifetime.
For the "middle" version, Enoch zu Guttenberg's superb disc Bruckner - Symphony No 4
has yet, in my opinion, to be bettered. But this is confusingly labelled "Third Version" and derives from the changes made for the projected New York performance of 1885.
There is no easily available disc to compete with this Vanska recording in the Final Revised Version and certainly not one in such very good sound, so BIS have the field to themselves here. The interpretion is very subtle. For example, compared with all the other versions there is a greater use of timpani rolls to underpin climaxes. Furtwaengler's recordings (for example Bruckner - Symphonies Nos 4 - 9 - Furtwängler 1942-1951 recordings
) have rather loud drums, but Vanska's timpanist uses a variety of dynamic levels and to great effect. Some of the transition sections in the first and last movements are so tenderly handled that I was completely won over.
So in summary, if you have heard Bruckner 4 in concert and want to buy a disc this is not quite the same music that you will have heard. See the Enoch zu Guttenberg disc above. If you know the other two versions of this lovely work then you will probably want to hear this recording. Vanska makes the best case for this version that I have ever heard. If you grow, or have grown, to love Bruckner's music then this disc will be an essential buy as it is without peer in the current catalogue - there IS no other mainstream label recording of this version. If you have NEVER heard Bruckner 4 before and learn the work on this recording you will be responding to a version that Bruckner was very proud of and you will be in no way short-changed as it is a truly lovely disc in every way.