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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fresh yet unidiosyncratic performance of the 1878/80 version, 25 July 2012
This review is from: Symphony No. 4 (Audio CD)
This is a recording of the 1878/80 version in Nowak's edition; that is, the version that was given to the conductor, Anton Seidl, in 1886 for the purposes of performance in New York, and which contains some relatively minor changes made by the composer since the score was premiered in Vienna, in 1881.

The recording was made live in October 2010 in the Great Hall of the Gewandhaus, and is part of a Bruckner symphony recording project which Blomstedt and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (LGO) commenced in 2005 with the 8th (only the 1st, 2nd and 9th symphonies remain to be released).

This is Blomstedt's third recording of the work, the first being with the Dresden Staatskapelle in 1981 (Denon), where Blomstedt used Nowak's edition, and the second being with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra (SFSO) in 1993 (Decca), where the conductor used the score premiered in Vienna, in 1881 and subsequently edited by Robert Haas.

I have not heard the Dresden performance, but, having listened to the SFSO recording, it would seem that the overall conception of 1993 did not change much by the time the present recording was made. Blomstedt avoids idiosyncrasy, tempo choices remain uncontroversial, and one always senses a steady, controlling hand. Indeed, I was initially tempted to conclude that, compared with two other conductors of similar vintage and pedigree in Bruckner, Bernhard Haitink and Christoph von Dohnanyi, both of whom have also produced recent recordings of this work with the London Symphony and Philharmonia Orchestras respectively, Blomstedt's stamp was less individual. Yet, the more I listened to this recording the more I found myself simply revelling in the beauty and majesty of this piece, admiring the conductor's assurance and sensitivity, and not distracted by interpretive decisions.

In this regard, Blomstedt has two rather important things going for him. First, there is the playing of his orchestra. I have not heard the LGO live and I do not own many of their recordings, but what made an impression from this recording was a string sound which, while obviously leaner than the BPO's, is supple and smooth. By comparison, the SFSO violins as recorded, while clearly well-drilled, have a certain steely quality, particularly in the upper register. The LGO's sound overall is also warm and well-integrated. Brass-laden climaxes bring panoplies of sound without any hint of stridency. The second feature is the recording, which provides an ideal Bruckner sound - expansive, warm, clear and with a reasonably wide dynamic range, more open and natural sounding than the Decca recording (which itself was of a high standard), and, indeed, superior to Jansons' recent recording with the Royal Concertgebouw (RCO Live), where microphone placements are a little too close to allow pianissimos to register as such.

A good example of the above virtues is that part of the first movement development (from 5'21) where strings, woodwinds and horns take us into an enchanted realm. The delicacy and refinement of the playing and the airiness of the sound evoke an atmosphere that cannot but appeal to the senses. Similarly, in that wistfully melancholic episode immediately following the first movement's chorale (from 10'34), the LGO's strings play with an affecting lightness and luminosity, fully arousing one of those many moments of stillness and solitude in this work. In fact, it's those moments of repose such as the above that primarily linger in my mind after listening to this recording. Not that Blomstedt downplays drama by any means. For instance, his handling of the build-up to the restatement of the work's opening fortissimo, just prior to the chorale, is masterly, with an entirely convincing gathering of momentum (from 7'57) to thrilling effect.

Notwithstanding the apparent constancy of Blomstedt's vision since he recorded the piece with the SFSO, there are differences in certain details, which, together with those aspects cited above, make the new recording, on balance, preferable to the SFSO version, good though that was. One general observation to make is that, aside from the scherzo, overall pacing in the latest recording is quicker; not markedly so, but, when combined with greater rhythmic vitality, makes the result more compelling.

In one sense, the very opening to the present recording gives a foretaste of an evolution in approach. Whereas the SFSO's horn delivers its call in a broad and consciously moulded fashion, lovely in its own way, the Leipzig hornist's call is more simple and direct (almost too direct on the first note), conveying a brighter mood that is carried over into the movement's song-like second theme (following the first fortissimo), where the LGO strings phrase with a little more point and lilt. Speaking of that fortissimo, Blomstedt also shapes its rising and falling motion to a greater degree this time round, creating that wonderful sensation of a rolling wave of sound.

During climactic moments in this movement (eg the chorale), the SFSO concedes nothing to the LGO in sonic splendour. However, it is at moments such as that episode immediately following the chorale which I mentioned above - where the SFSO sounds a little too studied by comparison - that one senses that the LGO, being steeped in performing Bruckner, enjoys an advantage.

In the andante quasi allegretto, Blomstedt, like Haitink and Dohnanyi, adopts a flowing pace. Indeed, this is one area where the conductor has clearly modified his thinking over the years: in Dresden, the movement lasts 16'30; in San Francisco 15'58; and, in this performance, 15'04. Of course, timings do not tell us everything, but the LGO is lighter on its feet than the SFSO, whose tread I find a bit heavy even though the pacing is not particularly slow. As the music gathers strength in the lead-up to the movement's first climax (from 6'14), for example, the LGO first violins play with more point and lift than their SFSO counterparts.

In the third movement scherzo, Blomstedt on this occasion is slower: 11'11 as opposed to 10'32 in San Francisco. This is partly on account of a marginally slower trio, which again shows Blomstedt in a more tender and affectionate vein than in the SFSO recording. The only caveat that I would mention as regards the scherzo in the present performance is that, during the climactic moments, the Leipzig horns do not have the same impact as their SFSO counterparts, sounding a little distanced.

In the final movement, the tension is just that bit keener in the later performance. In the opening minutes, for example, the two performances are merely seconds apart, but the SFSO version sounds almost too controlled by comparison. In subsequent climaxes including the coda, Blomstedt, while not as dramatic as Dohnanyi, infuses a little more life into such moments than in the SFSO version, where modulation and control win the day. Again, it's a matter of degree rather than any dramatic difference, but enough to make this latest outing a more spontaneous and gripping affair.

I listened to the performance in SACD stereo. Brief comparisons with the standard cd layer did not reveal any marked differences. The depth of perspective is marginally greater on the SACD layer.

The final matter that I should mention is that the timings on the back of the cd are slightly misleading. The first three movements end a good 15-20 seconds before the timings specified. In the case of the final movement, the timing is actually 21'05, followed by applause which takes us up to the specified 22'11. Where I have mentioned timings for movements, I have used the specified timings to avoid confusion.
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Symphony No. 4
Symphony No. 4 by Gewandhausorchester Leipzig (Audio CD - 2013)
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