Bruckner: Symphony No.4


Continuing Signum’s series of live orchestral releases with the Philharmonia Orchestra, on this new disc Christoph von Dohnányi leads a performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No.4, Romantic.

Bruckner stands out from other 19th-century symphonists; his large-scale works demonstrate a unique fusion of conservative and radical elements, notably influenced by composers such as Wagner and Beethoven. He appended not only the title ‘Romantic’ but even included a programme for the Fourth Symphony, sometime after composition. Though he later withdrew it, the scenario is a mediaeval Romantic ideal, where knights awaken to the sound of horns, rejoice and repair to prayer, before the inevitable hunt and ensuing festivities.
Recent reviews for SIGCD250 (with Christoph von Dohnányi and the Philharmonia Orchestra):
“… a very sensitive interpreter … the slow movement [of the First Symphony] is very lyrical with some effective instrumental dovetailing and plenty of light and shade, and the finale generates an impressive sense of joyous release.”
“… performances are well played by the Philharmonia from whom the conductor obtains a sound that is lean and muscular.”
Musicweb International

What people are saying

 “This is a powerful live account of Bruckner’s Fourth … von Dohnanyi studiously avoids that sense of periodic hiatus less attentive interpreters can often convey … The finale becomes a vast, thrilling drama of tension and relaxation, and triumph.” The Times

” … much worth celebrating … In a word, this is intelligent, a performance that eschews the kind of inflated gestures that so often hinder Bruckner.” Gramophone, Orchestral Disc of the Month

“this is a magnificent performance, wonderfully assured and insightful, rarefied, powerful, suggestive and glowing … It’s a handsome sound to complement a grand performance.” Hi Fi Critic, July 2012

Philharmonia Orchestra

Release date:7th May 2012
Order code:SIGCD256
Barcode: 635212025628

October 2012 Issue, Orchestral Disc of the Month

There’s much worth celebrating on this excellent new (or newish) recording of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony. The venue is the Royal Festival Hall, the date October 30, 2008, the edition used the same that Dohnanyi used for his conceptually similar 1989 Decca recording (10/91-nla): “1881 (aka 1878/80) – ed Robert Haas (1936]”. The principal attraction here is a sense of blossoming growth, the way the first movement’s climaxes gradually gain in intensity, the first at 1’40”; then, by 8’02”, we can easily understand the concept of symphonic development. We’re clearly in a different place and the heat is full on. Also, Dohnanyi has a convincing take on the way the Fourth’s arching phrases function in relation to its rhythmic aspect, so that while the string lines soar, the brass and timpani help focus the score’s structural foundations. The clearly recorded violins benefit hugely from being divided left and right of the rostrum, an option that in this particular symphony makes significant musical sense. For example, in the elevated conversational exchanges that tail the first movement’s lyrical second subject, where in normal circumstances – unless you have your head buried in a score – you may well miss the fact that at 2’47” the first fiddles answer the seconds, whereas for the return of the same idea in the recapitulation (at 13’51”) the seconds answer the firsts. Would Bruckner have bothered with the reversal had he not wanted to achieve a sort of symmetry?

The Andante quasi allegretto second movement is expressive and sensibly paced, the Scherzo bracing and very well played, while the sizeable but ever-changing finale benefits from cannily judged transitions. In a word, this is intelligent, a performance that eschews the kind of inflated gestures that so often hinder Bruckner. Though, having said that, I must immediately contradict myself and quote the epic coda of Celibidache’s Munich Fourth (the one released by EMI- 11199) as being an exception – and boy, that is very broad! But Dohnanyi’s vividly (if rather closely) recorded Romantic is a genuine contender.

Gramophone, Rob Cowan

July 2012

Christoph von Dohnányi has led an illustrious career as one of the world’s foremost maestros. On one occasion he questioned the old school of conductors in the shape of Wilhelm Furtwängler on BBC Radio 3, saying that he remembers ‘this old man on the podium who audiences revered at the time … well that was maybe correct but we do not perform great music like that nowadays’. I was rather disturbed as I worshipped the German genius having attended three of is London concerts in the late 1940s, but I meant no malice.

Dohnányi’s live recording of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4, Romantic, has the remarkable Philharmonia Orchestra under his direction. the hushed intensity of the opening string line with the famous French Horn playing the first movement motto theme is truly magical.

Straight away I knew this was to be a remarkable interpretation, and so it proved. The whole performance carried me away. It is my favourite Bruckner Symphony and only Celibidache in live performance can compete. The slow movement’s Andante quasi Allegretto maintains my original impressions and the Scherzo and Trio that follows has lightness and sparkle with beauty besides. Totally recommended.

Music and Vision Online, Bill Newman

August 2012

Recorded live at the Royal Festival Hall in 2008, this CD follows Christoph von Dohnanyi’s acclaimed Cleveland Orchestra Decca release in offering a relatively straightforward account of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 that aims for maximum structural cohesion. This strategy is particularly effective in the Finale where Dohnanyi avoids the stop-start approach favoured by some conductors, which brings greater cogency to the movement and making its climaxes, in particular the awe-inspiring coda, all the more overwhelming. Hardly surprisingly the audience responds extremely positively to the adrenaline generated by this coda, and for once the decision to retain applause on a recording doesn’t seem obtrusive.

Despite some wonderfully atmospheric horn playing in the opening passage, the first movement seems more routine and doesn’t really achieve the same level of intensity. Far more impressive is the slow movement. Although Dohnanyi’s tempo is quite slow (somewhat ignoring Bruckner’s marking Andante quasi allegretto), the performance is notable for some really sensitive chamber-music-like interaction between wind and strings and particularly subtle phrasing from the violas in the chorale melody.

The Royal Festival Hall doesn’t perhaps offer the kind of spacious acoustic most suited to Bruckner’s orchestration, and in some of the climaxes the sound is congested with the trumpets predominating at the expense of the horns. Nonetheless, this is a largely enjoyable performance, if not one that ultimately deserves to be considered as a serious alternative to the classic accounts from Karl Bohm (Decca) and Gunter Wand (BMG).


BBC Music Magazine, Erik Levi


June 2012

The audience-filled Royal Festival Hall is not an easy venue for recording and there have been past failures but Signum seems to have conquered the problems, presenting sound of considerable immediacy. The hall is not particularly resonant and often Bruckner is recorded in more-spacious surroundings but in the context of Christoph von Dohnanyi’s strongly detailed account the amount of reverberation presented seems just right. In terms of balance the conductor pays much attention to stressing contrasting colours ” woodwind detail is captured exceptionally well. Given the fairly immediate sound, there is always concern in Bruckner as to whether the brass might overpower. Here it does so less than on many another recording and the only cause for thought is that the violins occasionally make less impact than they should.

On this occasion we are free of the controversial ‘Bruckner edition’ problem. Dohnanyi uses the excellent 1936 Robert Haas publication of Bruckner’s 1878/1880 version. This is widely accepted as the composer’s true intention as is Leopold Nowak’s almost identical presentation. (I shall not bother the reader with the tiny alterations which Haas included in a later, equally acceptable publication.)

The nature of Dohnányi’s interpretation is clear from the outset. In some readings the magical opening horn-call might have been emerging from a distant forest; here, over extremely hushed strings, we have a bold announcement of the pervasive theme beautifully played. Strength and directness continue throughout although Dohnányi is fairly flexible within his moderate pacing ” faster than Bohm or Tintner, similar to Eugen Jochum or Gunter Wand but slower than Eduard van Beinum (in a June 1952 Amsterdam performance that has latterly become available).

Directness does not exclude the evocation of mystery and there is a magical passage just after eleven minutes when the orchestra becomes hushed to re-introduce the opening horn call in gentler mode with softly answering flute. The timpani subtly echo the horn’s phrases. The Andante quasi allegretto is not as march-like as is sometimes the case ” it is possible effectively to make expressive hesitations at ends of phrases and Dohnanyi does so without hindering the progress of the music. The dance element of the scherzo is admirably evident. A measured tempo is adopted although perhaps Dohnanyi’s relaxation at the thoughtful middle part holds back the impulse somewhat. The woodwind playing in the trio is superlative.

Dohnanyi makes the finale something of a tour de force even though this is not the strongest of Bruckner’s constructions, it is however immensely superior to the original 1878 movement of which this is the 1880 revision. I like the way in which the timpani are used with immense power to underline the significant moments of the big climaxes and the horns always match the weight of the heavier brass. Another of Dohnanyi’s magical moments occurs just before twelve-minutes-in when after a noble climax a soft Wagner-like passage leads via a sombre climbing from the depths to a challengingly discordant woodwind sequence. Bruckner writes many a beautiful and serene melody and in this he can be comforting but he is certainly not a comfortable composer because the listener can never be sure when the next unexpected clash of harmony might arrive. The performance ends grandly with a broad coda and a ringing final chord. A pity about the applause: true it respects the music by giving a decent pause after its close but it is entirely unnecessary and a distraction on a recording.

Dohnanyi is a notable conductor of Bruckner and he seems to have a special sympathy for the ‘Romantic’ Symphony. There are several recordings available including off-air performances on unauthorised CDs. Officially, however, Dohnanyi has recorded the work twice, both with the Cleveland Orchestra, first for Decca and then the Clevelanders issued a concert performance from May 2000. Dohnanyi has also recorded most of Bruckner’s other symphonies, beginning with No. 3, but none are recent releases. Can we perhaps hope for more Bruckner with the Philharmonia Orchestra? After all Dohnanyi is now its Honorary Conductor for Life.

Classical Source

July 2012

This is a powerful live account of Bruckner’s Fourth, played in the Robert Haas edition, as heard in 1881. By graduating both dynamics and intensity, von Dohnanyi studiously avoids that sense of periodic hiatus less attentive interpreters can often convey. The result is that the performance possesses a compelling feeling of being a singular rather than a disparate organism. Then there is the sound of the orchestra, opulently warm and satin-like. Von Dohnanyi avoids overplaying both the majestic elements and the religiosity of this music, maintaining the impetus in the opening movement. The finale becomes a vast, thrilling drama of tension and relaxation, and triumph.

The Times

June 2012

Recorded in London’s Royal Festival Hall on 30 October 2008, this is a magnificent performance, wonderfully assured and insightful, rarefied, powerful, suggestive and glowing. Christoph von Dohnanyi and the Philharmonja Orchestra create a magical, mysterious and awe-inspiring landscape that is alive to the music’s range and intricacy. Dance inflexions, episodes and impulses are given full value while remaining part of the whole. The recording is faithful to the immediacy of the RFH without denuding the space this music needs, and does so without artificiality. It’s a handsome sound to complement a grand performance.

Hi Fi Critic

CD Review – BBC Radio 3 – June 2012

Andrew McGregor [AM]: …but our first Bruckner recording is his ‘Romantic’ Symphony No.4 from Christoph von Dohnanyi and the Philharmonia, live in London.


AM: The opening of the Finale from Anton Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony and that was a performance recorded live at the Royal Festival Hall in October 2008, the Philharmonia orchestra conducted by Christoph von Donhanyi. Now, Erik Levi, what would you say are the distinguishing qualities of that performance, it’s a very impressive sound, we’ll get to that, but what really struck you about it?

Erik Levi [EL]: Well, their ability to weld the whole thing, which can seem very disparate into a convincing entity. Tempo juxtapositions are very nicely judged I think. That’s the particular thing that strikes me, especially about the opening of the Finale where, it’s always a problem with Bruckner, trying to make it convincing, but I think in this performance Dohnanyi really does succeed.

AM: Well the end of the Finale can be very stop-start can’t it, but that had a lovely sense of flow about it.

EL: It did, and really was integrated and each thing followed on naturally from the one before and that is a problem for Bruckner and interpreters, to get that kind of entity and I’m sure that’s one reason why a lot of people criticise Bruckner, because they think it’s not organic, it’s just separate ideas juxtaposed together without any forethought about the overall symphonic structure.

AM: Well the structure is so important, isn’t it, because the finest performances of the big Bruckner symphonies always bring with them this sense of architecture, the idea of a structure, and people talk about cathedrals and the space and size and the monumental aspects of it, but that architecture is a fundamental part of a good performance, isn’t it?

EL: Absolutely, and it goes against the criticism that Brahms made of Bruckner that he’d written symphonic Boa Constrictors. There is a kind of logic there and I think that’s particularly emphasised in this performance.

AM: And let’s talk about the sound, because live in the Festival Hall it doesn’t actually feel constrained by the circumstances of being recorded there, does it?

EL: No. I was wondering at times, particularly in the last movement, whether they’d actually applied some artificial reverberation. I don’t know whether I should say that, but at one point in the climax, one climax when there’s silence, there seems to be a rather strange kind of reverberation, I don’t know whether that’s sensation from sitting in the hall, but normally you’re right, the sound is rather constricted in the Royal Festival Hall. There is a problem with the brass sometimes, particularly with the trumpets catching more sound than the horns and I don’t think that’s’ the fault of the conductor, I think that’s the fault of the acoustic, but at the same time what I do notice is the warmth of the string playing and that’s particularly due to the qualities of the Philharmonia Orchestra.

AM: And that’s particularly obvious in the second movement isn’t it? Shall we hear some of that?


AM: The Philharmonia Orchestra and Christoph von Dohnanyi in the Andante second movement of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony live at the Royal Festival Hall in London and well, a lovely string sound there, the violas as well.

EL: Absolutely beautiful – subtle as well and when you consider that British orchestras don’t always have a lot of rehearsal time the actual finesse is quite staggering I think. When I listened to the symphony the first time through, that was the movement that really struck me as being the most beautiful.

AM: And that sense of flow we were talking about, it’s not a quick tempo is it, it’s one of the slow andantes in recordings of this, but it works beautifully.

EL: It does. It actually starts off slightly too slow but then it gets into its stride and when it flows, it really goes in an intimate and beautiful dialogue. I particularly like the way he phrases off the violas with the ritardandi, they’re so beautifully judged.

AM: We heard it just at the end of that example, with the horn coming over the top of it, that was beautiful.

EL: Yes, and it was almost as if we were hearing a slow movement from a Brahms Symphony, it was that kind of intimacy, which is something you don’t normally recognise in Bruckner; chamber music intimacy.

AM: Is this a performance you, obviously you were very glad to have heard it once as were the audience in the hall, but is this one to play again and again, one to keep?

EL: Well, he recorded it commercially before with the Cleveland Orchestra, for Decca, and that’s a very fine performance with slightly more pristine playing in places. You obviously have to weight up the pros and cons. The pros are with having a live performance are that you can replicate that adrenalin. There may be moments, even in the excerpt we heard, where there’s a little bit of slack ensemble, which might annoy people after repeated listening. I certainly think it’s a very fine performance and I can see why it was justifiably recorded. I suppose they take a runner on these things sometimes because the performance may not be quite as exciting as that. Of course it does have the applause at the end.

AM: Yes, it’s not track separated, but not intrusive is it?

EL: Not at all, no, given the strength of the Finale, which I think is particularly strong. The first movement it was ok, nothing special, the opening was beautiful with the horns, but I didn’t think it quite took wing. Once we got to the second movement it really made a difference I think.

AM: Well you’ll find Bruckner 4 from Dohnanyi and the Philharmonia on Signum Classics.

BBC Radio 3, CD Review

  1. Symphony No.4, Romantic: i. Bewegt, nicht zu schnell – Anton Bruckner – 17.42
  2. Symphony No.4, Romantic: ii. Andante quasi Allegretto – Anton Bruckner – 15.13
  3. Symphony No.4, Romantic: iii. Scherzo (Bewegt) – Anton Bruckner – 10.58
  4. Symphony No.4, Romantic: iv. Finale (Bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell) – Anton Bruckner – 20.24
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