Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sunday Classics: Bruckner's Fourth Symphony -- four stories for four movements


The Bruckner Monument in City Park, Vienna

by Ken

Last week we adagio-ed our way from Beethoven's two great symphonic Adagios to those of Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) and Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) -- a pretty nervy way to tramp onto the turf of two of the trickier composers in the pantheon. Having thus sneaked up on Bruckner, why not try to build some momentum? The obvious way would be by focusing on the Fourth Symphony, the meeting ground between the Bruckner Faithful and the people who think the guy just kept writing the same symphony over and over.


Of course, if you were here for the previews, we've already been listening to the Bruckner Fourth. Friday night we heard the Scherzo performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under Wilhelm Furtwängler, from a live broadcast from Stuttgart, Oct. 22, 1951. When I said that our conductor wouldn't be represented in our all-stereo post, I thought that would indicate a pre-stereo Bruckner conductor of considerable stature, which would easily enough suggest Furtwängler. I'm actually not that great a fan of F's Bruckner, which seems to me to attempt to make constant moment-to-moment drama of music that for me has more to do with observation and contemplation.

Then last night we heard the Scherzo of the Fourth again, and added to it the opening movement, in another historical performance -- by the NBC Symphony under Bruno Walter (1876-1962), from February 10, 1940. I thought that was an excellent clue, the photo of the NBC Symphony, though I admit the presence of Arturo Toscanini on the podium may have been a trifle deceiving. In fact, there was a broadcast performance of Toscanini conducting the Bruckner Seventh with the New York Philharmonic, which nobody, as far as I'm aware, has complete (it would have been recorded on 78s, of course). That's something I would love to hear, Bruckner having been a worshipper of Wagner and Toscanini a magisterial (and not at all fast) conductor of Wagner.

In this case, I indicated, the conductor would be represented today, and when we get back to actual music in just a moment, we're going to lead off with the first movement in the 1960 stereo recording of the Bruckner Fourth Walter made with the Los Angeles pickup orchestra Columbia Records assembled, under the name "Columbia Symphony Orchestra," for the surprisingly extensive series of recordings he made in his 80s. Actually, we've already heard the Scherzo from that version -- it was the second performance of it we heard last night. I indicated that it's "related" to the earlier one, and I think having the same conductor is a pretty close relationship. While the 1940 performance of the first movement seems to me quite in line with the 1960 one, though with some intriguing differences (here too in big-orchestra sections Walter tends to clip phrases as he did in the Scherzo, and there is sometimes an impulse to speed up for them), I didn't want to leave either you or B.W.'s memory resting on that clipped, bat-out-of-hell 1940 performance of the Scherzo.

Our music program for today is simple: We're going to hear each movement of the symphony twice, in performances that have been chosen to provide some contrast in each. And in order to avoid straying too far from the music, I'm going to confine the yammering to one "story" per movement.

Believe me, I am only too aware that, where 20 years separate the two Bruno Walter performances of the Bruckner Fourth, the later one is now a month away from being 50 years old. Its limitations really aren't a matter of age, though; they were always there. Most importantly, there was the use of a bare-bones-size orchestra that was then sonically "puffed up" a bit in the mastering. Bruckner, more perhaps than any other composer, demands the highest level of orchestral playing imaginable, in terms of both the fullest size and weight and the highest degree of individual tonal refinement. And for the Bruckner Faithful (about whom more later) Walter's way of constantly adjusting expressive content within individual phrases is taboo, a violation of what they perceive as the composer's monolithic structures. It could equally well be argued, though, that this remains the genius of the performance. Walter's Columbia Symphony recordings of the Bruckner Fourth, Seventh, and Ninth Symphonies have an expressive sophistication I've never heard anyone else achieve in this music. (There's also a sonically limited but quite wonderful 1941 New York Philharmonic broadcast performance of the monumental Bruckner Eighth, which I think may have been the last time he played the piece.)

As it happens, the Walter-Columbia Symphony Bruckner Fourth features in our first Bruckner "story."


It was about as close as I ever came to a drug experience. (We all have our talents. That doesn't seem to be one of mine.) I'd come home from summer camp with a wracking cough, and the doctor had prescribed a cough syrup with codeine. Left to my own devices, I'd switched on the little transistor radio my oldest cousin, who was in the Army, had bought for our grandparents at the PX in Germany. I found WQXR in time for the beginning of a piece I recognized (I'd missed the opening announcement) as the Bruckner Fourth Symphony. The codeine high seems to have enhanced my receptivity, and those 65 or so minutes passed like a flash -- or maybe like many more hours than they occupied.
BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major (Romantic):
i. Bewegt, nicht zu schnell
(Animated, not too fast)

Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Bruno Walter, cond. Columbia/CBS/Sony, recorded Feb. 13-25, 1960

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Kurt Sanderling, cond. Bells of Saint Florian, recorded live c1996

I don't mean at all to suggest that you need to be high to appreciate Bruckner, or that it's an especially helpful way of listening to the music. But to the extent that it opens you to really listening, to hearing the patterns and the intermingling of huge outpourings and intimate shadings, it's guiding you into a kind of consciousness-raising that Bruckner did a whole lot better than drugs do (even for aficionados). This is a dimension of the music that clearly tantalized the hardy band of supporters he attracted in his difficult lifetime, but that -- as we'll talk about shortly -- even they barely began to understand.

If you think about it, what could be simpler than the opening of the symphony, which just plays with the musically crucial interval of the fifth, first sounding it, then augmenting it, then resounding it? It sounds like the sort of thing that anybody could do. In fact, though, it's something really only Bruckner could have thought of, and then known where to go with it, so that within maybe a minute and a half he's gone from this amazing hushed opening to blazing full-orchestra glory. So for starters, I suggest not "thinking about it," just hearing it. And after all these years I'm amazed at how well the 1960 Walter recording holds up. However, I'm delighted to offer alongside it the more expansive, breathtakingly beautiful performance by Kurt Sanderling (born 1912, retired in 2002). When it came to "the vision thing," musically speaking, Sanderling was one of the more trusty go-to conductors.


Bruckner arouses strong feelings, even if the strong feeling is boredom -- as expressed in that notion that he kept writing the same symphony over and over. At the opposite end are a coterie of worshippers whose devotion has many of the characteristics of religious worship -- a phenomenon we find all too often in the arts, and hardly ever to the good. In Bruckner's case, it can have the effect of remaking him into a religious icon. I know it's very unfair of me, but I often sense among the Bruckner religionists an attitude eerily similar to that of the Bruckner detractors: that yes, he wrote the same thing over and over, and yes, it gets kind of repetitious and even monotonous, but that's what's so wonderful!

The Bruckner religionists will stress the composer's naive piety, and his background as a church organist, and when it comes to "architecture" -- an almost unavoidable metaphor given the scale and density of his symphonies -- for them the structures will always be churches, or rather giant cathedrals in the ether. I can't help wondering what exactly these folks are listening to. The idea of Bruckner applying organ logic, or seeking organ sound, in his orchestration just seems to me nuts. This is a man who was deliriously obsessed with the range of expressive possibilities he could draw from a symphony orchestra -- this is the quality I would stress above all others as you listen to today's music, because I think even listening in computer-transmitted MP3 form you will find yourself drawn that way into its expressive core.
BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major:
ii. Andante quasi Allegretto
(Walking pace but as if it were quickish)

Munich Philharmonic, Rudolf Kempe, cond. Living Stage, recorded live c1975-76

Concertgebouw Orchestra, Eugen Jochum, cond. Tahra, recorded live Jan. 16, 1975

I mentioned last week, when we heard the Adagio of the Bruckner Seventh, that I was tempted to start off with the slow movement of the Fourth, but that it isn't a true Bruckner Adagio, and that I thought as long as we were going to go for it, we ought to go for it. I don't want to call a true Bruckner Adagio "static" (would you describe the Adagio of the Seventh as "static"?), but it seems to me to have more the characteristic of observation or contemplation. First off, the slow movement of the Fourth isn't even literally an Adagio; it's marked the significantly less slow Andante -- and "quasi Allegretto" at that. This is a movement that really does move -- it seems almost to be a travelogue of some sort. For some reason Eugen Jochum (1902-1987) seems always to have had the measure of it, and I'm pleased to be able to share this broadcast performance with the Concertgebouw, along with the more straightforwardly quicker but still remarkably beautiful, clear-headed version by Rudolf Kempe (1910-1976).


It's hard to imagine any creative artist who doesn't have at least one "breakthrough" reflected in his or her work in the course of the career. In Bruckner's case, I don't think there's any question that it came with the Fourth Symphony, although -- since nothing came simply to him -- it didn't happen all at once. I've been trying like heck to avoid talking about the bewlidering matter of "editions" of Bruckner symphonies, but even with the Fourth, which comes closer than any to being performed in a single "standard" version, it's not the "original" version. Still, this is the symphony of Bruckner's that most behaves like a "normal" symphony, with four movements of manageable and more or less equal expressive weight. Consequently the Fourth is a meeting ground between the Bruckner Faithful and the take-it-or-leave-it types.

Maybe the most obvious point to make about the Scherzo is how physically capturing it is. It's "captivating" too, but I really mean something more physical here. It grabs hold of you and with the greatest pleasure won't let go.
BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major:
iii. Scherzo: Bewegt (Animated) -- Trio: Nicht zu schnell. Keinesfalls schleppend. (Not too quick. Not at all dragging) -- Scherzo

Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Claudio Abbado, cond. Lucerne Festival Edition, recorded live in Tokyo, Oct. 18-19, 2006

Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. EMI, recorded Sept. and Nov. 1963

The Scherzo is the shortest of the symphony's four movements, and by its nature is a whole lot harder to stretch out than any of the others. Its performance range is pretty much 10-12 minutes. Our two performances represent something like the extremes, Otto Klemperer (1885-1973) at nearly 12 minutes, Claudio Abbado (born 1933) actually crashing the 10-minute lower "limit." I'm not sure I understand this impulse to speed the thing up -- at Klemperer's tempos it still sounds "fast," doesn't it? And the music has more room to really lock in its grip on the listener. No irreparable harm is done at the faster tempos, though, and even played this way, because of the music's sheer physicality, and the volume of sound generated, the movement seems to me to hold its own with the others.

BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major:
iv. Finale: Bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell
(Animated, but not too fast)

Berlin Philharmonic, Günter Wand, cond. BMG, recorded Jan. 30-Feb. 1, 1998

Staatskapelle Dresden, Giuseppe Sinopoli, cond. DG, recorded September 1987

As I mentioned earlier, in his own time Bruckner attracted enthusiasts and even disciples. Clearly they were responding to the dimension of the music that really wasn't like anything they had heard before (with perhaps the exception of those forebears of the Brucknerian Adagio). But they still tended to think in conventional symphonic terms, and Bruckner's music never worked very well that way -- it's not the way his music was designed to work. On some level he must have had amazing inner confidence, just to continue pursuing his musical vision when almost nobody seemed to get it. What he didn't have, unfortunately, was the outer toughness to stand his ground and insist that yes, this was really what he meant, and while it may not always have worked on the first try, what he needed to do was find a better version of his way, not have well-meaning colleagues "help" him write his music the way they thought it should go.

That takes a lot of toughness, and Bruckner didn't have it. It was also a practical matter. If you write piano music or songs, and your music attracts any enthusiasts at all, it's not hard to find pianists or singers to at least give them a hearing -- so that both you and the public are able to hear them, both of which are awfully important both to the composer's own self-awareness and development and to the establishment of a reputation. However, if you write symphonies or operas, you've got to persuade symphony orchestras or opera companies to play them, and in Bruckner's case this came with even more "suggestions" as to how his symphonies could/should be "fixed." And so began a pattern of endless revisions, involving significant cutting, rewriting, and occasionally expanding.

The worst part of this is that there's really no way of separating revisions that Bruckner himself believed in, revisions that he might not have made on his own but that nevertheless are of genuine artistic value (something that often happens when creators make changes against their will and in the process find new inspirations), and revisions that were simply forced on him. We can certainly guess, and guesswork would be fine if we were dealing with individual performances, but music that is widely performed needs to have some kind of standard edition or editions, which are normally determined by publishers, which after a composer's (or writer's) death is taken out of his/her hands.

The unfortunate image we're left with is of Bruckner as naïf, this pious man of genius but of narrow vision and skill, being easily manipulated by others to produce hybrid works that only partly represent his own inner ear. At another time perhaps I'll try to explain my understanding of just how vast and far-seeing Bruckner's creative vision was. The irony is that today there would be an audience for it. Mahler, who followed in Bruckner's path writing "outsize" symphonies, not only had the benefit of observing Bruckner's example but had all the toughness that Bruckner lacked. When Mahler revised his works, as he did extensively, it was based on his own judgment, with feedback from a group of colleagues and disciples of better judgment than Bruckner's, and whose views would never have been allowed to supersede the composer's own.

Mahler, faced with a life of savage dismissal of his creative work, became famous for saying, "My time will yet come." I'm not sure even he would have guessed how true that turned out to be. It turned out to be true for Bruckner as well, just not as neatly.


The (updated!) list is here.

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At 10:55 AM, Anonymous Bil said...

THANKS KenI, Wonderful! so much to learn here.

So the sunglasses were for the codeine? Momma never told me that codeine led to classic music.

The Road Less Traveled, my first codeine cough came with Disney's Fantasia and Robert Crumb Zap Comix leading to the Mothers of Invention:)

At 11:06 AM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Hi, Bil. Strangely, I've never succeeded in getting myself the "good" cough syrup prescribed again.


At 7:37 PM, Anonymous Frank Wilhoit said...

Do you know the original version of the Fourth, composed in 1874? It has been recorded by Dennis Russell Davies and by Roger Norrington -- possibly others as well. It is not only a different work, but in important ways an opposite one: exploratory where the 1878/1880 version is consolidatory. Increasingly I think that, in order to understand Bruckner, one must examine every version of every work, in chronological order (except, of course, the ones that were hacked up without his participation).

At 9:27 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Frank, I don't know the 1874 version of the Fourth well enough to make any reasoned comment beyond that it seems to me missing a significant amount of creative energy from the later version.

As much as I tried to steer clear of the revision question in this piece, without ignoring it, I certainly agree that fuller knowledge of the stages of composition of Bruckner's symphonies is all to the good, but I'm not sure it really helps us "understand" Bruckner. It's at least as likely that we wind up staring in the mirror at our own preconceptions, since we're reduced to speculation about the reasons for changes and purely subjective evaluation. It's my general feeling that this process tends to undervalue Bruckner's own creative growth in the course of many of the revisions -- that "middle" kind of change I described, where in the process of undertaking revisions prompted by third parties, new insight occurred.

Of course that's just my utterly subjective opinion!


At 10:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Super! I will have to pay more attention to this. It's an all German evening of classics for me. I watched the BBC prodution, Eroica earlier. Now this material on Bruckner which is very inspiring. Thanks for all the effort your put into this.


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