United Kingdom Bruckner’s Journey to the ‘Romantic’ Symphony: London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 19.9.2021. (CC)
Bruckner – Discarded Scherzo (1874, rev. 1876) and Discarded Finale, ‘Volksfest’ (1878) from Symphony No.4 (ed. Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs); Symphony No.4 in E flat, ‘Romantic’ (1878-81, ed. Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs, Anton Bruckner Urtext Gesamtausgabe, Vienna, 2021)
Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony seems to be the piece of the moment: I narrowly missed hearing a performance in Berlin on 11 September (Pierre-Laurent Aimard took priority): there, Jakub Hrůša conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker and coupled the work with the world premiere of Olga Neuwirth’s Keyframes for a Hippogriff. That was Simon Rattle’s old orchestra, of course: and here he is, performing the ‘same’ symphony (the 1878-81 score) but here in a new edition, part of the Bruckner Urtext Complete Edition, edited by Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs.
And as is typical for Rattle, the whole event became thought-provoking and inspiring. In a spoken introduction, he referred to the concert as a ‘glimpse into Bruckner’s workshop’ before reminding us that there are up to eight versions of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony and acknowledging that a detailed description of them all would do nothing for our sanity. But the whole concept of different ‘versions’ – even different ‘final’ versions – leads to the question of what leads up to those final versions. And in Bruckner’s case, what is final was by no means set in stone, given his self-doubts and the unremitting advice of well-meaning colleagues. But inherent in Rattle’s approach is the sense of exploration, and what those intermediate versions of movements – or discarded movements – require is a fervent advocacy of the fiercest kind. And that is precisely what they received here.
First, the ‘Discarded Scherzo’ of 1879, a terrific movement, full fat but perhaps not fully formed Bruckner. As so often in Bruckner, the horn was to the forefront (in the first half of the concert Diego Incertis Sánchez (in the second half it was Timothy Jones). The expansive, bucolic trio had its own beauty; and were there some Schumannesque leanings to the score that were excised by the final version? Never mind: the important thing is that it is impossible to imagine finer performances of these transitionary movements, for the same goes for the ‘Volksfest’ finale.
Interestingly enough, the ‘Volksfest’ movement may be known to Bruckner collectors through Georg Tintner’s recording with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra on Naxos (although there recorded in the Novak edition, not the Cohrs – I see what Rattle means …). It is a fascinating movement, its title derived from the pastoral nature of the second subject. It is one of three versions of the finale to the Fourth. The ‘Volksfest’ represents a tightening of the original ending heard at the premiere although it too contains the odd diffuse passage. But there is also an angular string passage at the opening that is most beguiling and intriguing, not to mention mysterious (and superbly performed by the LSO). Long, low string melodies were beautifully projected, while some passages sounded massively experimental in comparison with the later versions we know.
Yet another aspect of Rattle’s approach is framing. Coming to Bruckner from, say, Neuwirth, is very different from coming to Bruckner from earlier Bruckner. Hearing the magnificence of the 1881 version in the new edition (which includes a transitional passage that may never have been heard before!) only increased the sense of admiration that Bruckner’s scores tend to invite in. Rattle inspired his players to do the symphony full justice. For a long time, there has been the debate between the advantages of a Toscanini approach to music – fast, detailed – and the more long-range thought embraced by Furtwängler: the mythical Toscwängler (or Furtanini?). Flippancy aside, Rattle somehow managed to micromanage Bruckner’s counterpoint and inner lines to perfection, balancing what we heard on a moment-to-moment basis, with a clear long-range arc that gave the climaxes full weight. A line of double basses at the back of the orchestra truly grounded the sound; and how beautiful were those initial horn calls from Timothy Jones (and how tender later in the movement, when those same calls return, were the woodwind responses). More, one really felt the contrapuntal basis of much of Bruckner’s ideas. Intriguingly, no bells up for the horns for the final peroration of the first movement (perhaps too vulgar?) – but they certainly cut through the orchestra magnificently before shining in their own right.
Rattle’s solid rhythmic basis that underpinned the first movement also paid huge dividends in the Andante, quasi allegretto; the rather matter-of-fact delivery of the opening imparted the feeling of a processional, an unstoppable onward momentum. Tempos throughout this performance were beautifully thought through to create the most coherent experience, and yet Rattle always found space: the oboe countermelody at one point absolutely delicious, the horn’s angular melody against timpani ideally delivered. The Scherzo here was fast, the unison woodwind turns electric; in contrast a long, sustained pianissimo passage reminded us that there is magic in Bruckner’s quietude, too.
The opening pulsating bass of the Finale was judged to perfection, full of tension held in check as well as momentum. Throughout, Rattle brought out the daring in Bruckner’s writing, as if reminding us of the movement’s history we had heard in the first half. As far as the new transition in the Finale, it does sound a little odd, but perhaps that’s the freshness of it all – it felt something of a relief to be back in familiar waters.
A concert that was at once educational and wholly emotionally involving, therefore. That it was played to a packed hall is testament to the efficacy of Rattle’s vision, and one hopes for much more of this adventuresome spirit in the future.