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Finally - a triumph
on 21 May 2012
Sir Simon Rattle's live recording of Bruckner's Fourth Symphony in 2006 received a mixed reception. I have myself had my reservations, ranging from mild to serious, regarding the success of some of his forays into Brahms, Strauss and Mahler, but this latest release seems to me to be the finest thing he has done with the Berlin Philharmonic to date.
Some have expressed the usual concerns about a slight muddiness in the sound EMI has given him here, although I suspect that has more to do with the acoustics inherent in the construction of the Philharmonie hall itself and the difficulty engineers have in capturing the clarity of a live performance; certainly any deficiency is not serious enough to detract from the pleasure I derive from listening to this thrilling performance.
Rattle has in the past appeared to lack a convincing overview and defaulted into a certain fussy delicacy in his interpretation of composers like Brahms, Strauss and Bruckner who respond to the big bow-wow treatment. No such problem here; he maintains the kind of sumptuousness of sound for which Karajan made the BPO (in)famous whilst ensuring that he eschews the "soupiness" which could afflict recordings from the Karajan era.
There is a massive solidity and a rich sonority about the playing here. I heard one little blip in the horns at 2:41 into the first movement but otherwise the orchestra's virtuosity throughout is breath-taking. I was also concerned that Rattle would be too clinical when I heard him first scud rather too blithely over the descending string figure five minutes in to which Giulini applies a little rubato and makes so poignant but my list of nit-picking was never extended beyond that point as I became utterly absorbed by Rattle's glorious commitment: the climax to this opening movement is both grand and urgent, showcasing the BPO in full flight.
The Scherzo is, in my experience, pretty difficult to foul up even under a merely moderately gifted conductor and orchestra so here it goes just as it should; the lift and precision of the pizzicato passages are a joy.
In the Adagio, Rattle is up against stiff competition from the likes of Giulini in his mesmerising accounts with both the VPO and in Stuttgart but he has the measure of the movement, providing us with stunning vistas as the D major trumpet theme ascends to the summit, aureate glow in the strings for the Dresden Amen and a crushing dissonant climax.
Of course, for many the main interest here will be the stamp of legitimacy this recording, and the performances from which it was derived, confer upon the latest and last version of the Samale-Phillips-Cohrs-Mazzuca completion of the fourth movement. There have of course been several recordings of this but none this recent asserting that this is the "Conclusive Revised Edition". The most apt comparison to be made is with the superb Naxos recording by Johannes Wildner with the New Philharmonic Orchestra of Westphalia but that was made in 1998 and used the 1996 revision, in which you may hear the inclusion of a passage now deleted. Before the Berlin concerts, Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs explained that he and his collaborators agreed to remove sixteen bars containing a pianissimo and a crescendo in the interests of not interrupting the momentum from the beginning of the chorale recapitulation up to the end of the coda. This is a change I regret as I find the original idea very effective; otherwise the textures and colours of these final thoughts could hardly sound more convincingly Brucknerian. While I find the Carragan ending used by Gerd Schaller in his excellent set of three symphonies from the Ebrach Festival on the Profil label to be highly entertaining, I suspect that we are hearing from Rattle the closest we shall ever get to Bruckner's own thoughts. Rattle welds the three disparate themes drawn from motivic elements from the preceding movements into a cohesive and captivating whole. He emphasises the violence of the jagged first theme before transmuting it into a Dead March, then the horns embrace the grand, broad Wagnerian melody over pulsating strings - magical.