Claudio Abbado, Conductor: Bruckner, 4th Symphony 

Abbado - Bruckner CD

Having listened to conductor Claudio Abbado’s exquisitely proportioned interpretation of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (Deutsche Grammophon, 1995), I was fully expecting this performance to be top-notch. And I wasn’t disappointed. After all, it’s hard to take a misstep with the Wiener Philharmonic—arguably the greatest orchestra in the world—supporting you. The Wiener’s instrumentalists are so precise, they can almost conduct themselves.

My broader interest in reviewing this CD, however, is with the music itself. Bruckner (18241896) is a composer with whom I have little to no familiarity, yet he is widely considered one of the greats. He has been described as a pioneer who, while steeped in the Viennese classical tradition in his youth, helped further establish the “Music of the Future” (German: Zukunftsmusik) in his more mature compositions, especially the symphonies. Featured on this disc is the 4th symphony (the “Romantic”), one of his most popular and performed works.

Despite this well-balanced and meticulously sculpted rendition by Abbado, I can’t say that listening to this particular work makes me want to revisit Bruckner’s music anytime soon. To be sure, I can hear a wide range of appealing influences, yet an individually distinctive voice seems missing. The influence of Liszt and Wagner is immediately apparent in the trumpetings of the first and fourth movements. Passages of Schubertian lyricism and tranquility frequently interrupt the bombast. The andante second movement begins with a touch of brooding à la Brahms, then erupts in a choir of horn blarings that sound something like the clarion calls in the Liszt E-flat Major piano concerto. And the scherzo is a brisk chase like the Hunting Song from Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words. The styles are skillfully assimilated, but it mostly seems rather derivative to me. I found the sequences especially overblown and tedious. It’s a judgment based on a first listening, of course. Maybe I just need to give it more time, but for now I hear little in this piece that would prompt me to say, “Only Bruckner could have written that!”

To the musicologist, this all might seem nothing short of heresy. Who am I, a mere musical hobbyist, to criticize the work of a now-canonical composer? True, maybe I have no such right, but I would also point out that many critics of the era, among them Eduard Hanslick, panned Bruckner’s music for its general amorphousness and repetitiveness. Admittedly, Hanslick’s verdict should be taken with a grain of salt, for he was a finger-waver whose agenda was to protect classical structure from what he perceived as the excesses and progressive poppycock of the neue schule. Indeed, music critics are notorious for being resistant to change. Chopin was often sneered at in his own time, for example, and who now would deny the greatness of the Polish master? Yes, history’s sifting tends to be just. But I wonder in Bruckner’s case whether 20th-century musicologists vaulted Bluckner just a bit beyond his due, crowing about structural manipulation at the expense of considering originality.

Still, if you don’t mind protracted movements (this single piece is well over an hour) and are interested in the evolution of the spatromantik symphonic style, it’s worth a listen. Make sure you listen through headphones to get the full effect of the piercing brass.

Joe's Grade: B      © Joseph Renouf 2012-2016