An Underappreciated Brucknerian
Brian W. Bough | Albuquerque, New Mexico | 12/08/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"When I first heard the fourth symphony of Anton Bruckner, I was a trombonist in a collegiate marching band. For virtually every recording I had of this working, which I enthusiastically collected, I looked for solid--no, overwhelming--playing from the brass, especially the low brass. And, on this point, most recordings deliver.
As I aged, I came to understand the tenderness that underlies Bruckner's music. I could no longer love the bombast of poor performances that rested at the crux of justifiable criticism. However, the Romantic symphony sits at the crossroads of Bruckner's life, where he has clearly mastered the vocabulary of music, but where he also has difficulty in expressing what he means. It is easy and probably even tempting for conductors to use fortissimo brass to bury suspect rhythmic playing in this work.
Hans Vonk does precisely the opposite--he exposes every element of the fine instrument at his disposal, the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, to show off fine musicianship. In doing so, he unlocks a richness to the Bruckner fourth that is rarely found in most recordings. What you will also find in this recording is that the Saint Louis Symphony is deep--in exposing every part down to the bottom players in each section, you hear an orchestra that is almost without parallel at the top of the American music scene.
The prior review here at Amazon by Gregory Zinkl does a fine job summarizing the piece movement by movement (though, it bears saying that the Bruckner seventh recording by Vonk and the SLSO is the finest put to disc--Vonk is the only conductor to get the finale right and the SLSO strings are frankly unmatched by any in the world; they are brilliantly showcased on this disc and a steal for only $10 through the SLSO site). But not enough can be said of the clarity and balance that characterize the finale.
It is this clarity and balance that distinguishes this recording from others. The temptation in the finale is to overwhelm the listener with brass, as if the music were emanating from God himself. Here, Vonk's ensemble playing, with its balance across the brass, is overwhelming because you have the feeling that the music is emanating from Bruckner. It is so tempting to revert to citing Bruckner's devout Catholicism in defense of the music being interpreted as holy or otherwise deity-infused, but what has always struck me about the best recordings of Bruckner is how well they convey Bruckner's sense of the world. At the finish of the piece, you feel with this recording as if you were truly a part of it.
With two top-notch Bruckner recordings under his belt in St. Louis, Hans Vonk ought to be posthumously recognized for his stellar work in this area.
Other recommended recordings of this work:
Gunter Wand and the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra:The Last Recording - The Last Interview
Karl Bohm and the Vienna Philharmonic: Bruckner: Symphony No. 4"
Gregory M. Zinkl | Chicago, IL | 12/05/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Maestro Vonk has had overall good success with his Bruckner. He has a terrific Symphony No. 6 with one of his Dutch orchestras, a very good, although not A-list, Symphony No. 7 with St. Louis, and now this recording which shoots to the top of the list of his Bruckner recordings.
The performance has the usual Vonk trademarks: excruciating attention to detail (Boulez does not have this market cornered!), orchestral colors beautifully realized, and so many gradations of dynamics, only a superstar orchestra could pull them off.
He has St. Louis sounding like a stunning Bruckner instrument. The organ sonorities are there in full force, and the string playing--always a St. Louis strength--is just marvelous here. Their phrasing is excellent, and the playing is totally unified. Their sound is very lush. The opening horn solo is just gorgeous, the violas which carry a significant melodic burden in II are also beautiful, and the orchestra sounds not the least phased by the time IV comes around (it is an endurance piece!). The orchestra sounds like it is having fun playing this piece (as they should--it is a load of fun to play, and extraordinarily gratifying music to perform!).
Vonk's interpretation is reminiscient of Jochum, but without the gear-shifting in the tempi. There is always forward momentum (not a guarantee with Vonk), but there is never rushing (that IS guaranteed!). The listener can luxuriate in Bruckner's world without ever getting bored. So, therefore, mov't I is not the agonizingly slow thing that some conductors make it to be; II flows, III (indestructible for the most part) is terrific, and IV is well-judged and powerful--including the final pages which can seem to drag or be over exagerrated. You really experience every Vonk strength in the closing pages. I dare you to NOT hear every line, and yet be unconvinced that the orchestra is playing as one.
Balances of course are superb--another Vonk strength. So when we get to my favorite two episodes in I, for example, I'm quite happy. (They are: (1) the big viola section solo (set against the horns, of course), followed by (2) the flute/horn juxtaposition--which, btw, Jochum does just superbly in his EMI recordings, and Vonk gives him a good run for his money).
So where does it fall in the pantheon of Bruckner 4's? Does it displace Bohm/Vienna? Probably not. Jochum/Dresden? Possibly. Actually, let's forget the "what is THE best recorded performance" sweepstakes. I leave you this assessment: this performance is very enjoyable, has a stamp of individuality, and is extraordinarily well played. The engineering, btw, is one of the most successful I've heard from the hall. Not overly recessed (as was often the case with many of Maestro Slatkin's recordings), every detail is tellingly transmitted (including some page turning!), yet warm, and the bass is well caught--crucial in Bruckner's sound world!
The Bravos that welcomed the final chord are well deserved!"