There are three versions of Bruckner's Fourth. Why choose?

Austrian composer Anton Bruckner died in 1897, but his Fourth Symphony remains somewhat of a work in progress. Bruckner has continually...


Austrian composer Anton Bruckner died in 1897, but his Fourth Symphony remains somewhat of a work in progress.

Bruckner has continually revisited and revised many of his nine long symphonies, which in turn have been re-edited and edited by a series of followers, editors and academics. The result is that seven of the nine now exist in multiple partitions.

It is up to musicologists and conductors to decide which iteration is the most authentic, or just the best. And this problem is more acute with the Fourth Symphony, on which Bruckner worked longer than the others – from its first version, which dates to 1874 and was never performed during his lifetime, to a final third version, premiered in Vienna in 1888. Following a critical re-examination of Bruckner’s symphonies in the 1930s and 1940s, the second version, dating from 1880, became the norm.

This month, the Bamberg Symphony in Germany, conducted by its conductor, Jakub Hrusa, embraces the Fourth problem – or simply overwhelms it. The orchestra is releasing a four-disc set that includes recordings of all three versions, in new editions edited by Benjamin Korstvedt, professor at Clark University in Massachusetts, as part of Bruckner’s ongoing entirety published under auspices of the Austrian National Library. . (For good measure, the recording also includes a selection of unreleased alternate passages and an alternate finale.)

Originally from the Czech city of Brno, Hrusa, 40, has been conducting the orchestra in Bamberg, a small Bavarian town north of Nuremberg, since 2016. He has also appeared as a guest on major podiums, including several visits to the Cleveland Orchestra , and recently conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in the premiere of a new work by Olga Neuwirth – as well as in the second version of Bruckner’s Fourth.

In Berlin, he gave a video interview from his hotel. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Why did you decide to finally record everything related to the Fourth Symphony?

It took me a relatively long time to explore Bruckner with satisfaction. I had conducted his music before, but I was never really happy. Then I arrived in Bamberg. Bruckner’s music is very much at home in German speaking countries, and suddenly I had an orchestra that exudes that kind of music. I wanted to do a lot of it and we started with the Fourth Symphony.

I was pretty innocent and had no experience with all of the versions. Bamberg usually plays the second version, so I said, “Let’s do the third,” which at the turn of the 20th century was basically the only one that was being played. And then I asked myself: is the third version really the right one? Or is the second one right? And what about the very first version? And suddenly the idea came to record them all and bring out something new. There are so many Bruckners on the market, and if you register it again it should have bonus quality.

What are the main differences between the three versions? And you now prefer one?

I was intrigued by the first version, because it is by far the most controversial, and the most daring. It is longer and has a completely different scherzo [the third movement], and there are some parts that are about to be unplayable. I don’t agree with people who say it’s not good; it’s just not practical. But if you do it right, it sounds very contemporary. It is now probably my favorite. If there is enough time to prepare, and the opportunity to put on such a huge piece in concert, I would be looking forward to conducting it again.

Bruckner’s music was promoted by 19th century German nationalists and 20th century Nazis. Should this worry the public today?

I’m interested in these things and very happy to read about them, but I don’t think we should care about them when listening to music. Great music can take all kinds of analysis, but it also doesn’t need any analysis to be appreciated, and I don’t want to spoil the fun of people going to a concert without any idea of ​​those contexts. They have the right to be exposed to Bruckner’s music as it is. What has been done with the music should not be projected onto the performance.

And Bruckner (unlike, say, Wagner) did not himself provoke the controversy. He was a devout Catholic and he had certain views on life that might not seem very modern, but – apart from dedicating his last symphony to his “beloved God” – they were not explicit.

What are the challenges of maintaining a world-class orchestra in a small provincial town?

It’s much easier to promote an orchestra connected to a famous city. Bamberg has about 70,000 inhabitants and we have 6,000 subscribers, so about 10% of the adult population comes to our concerts. We feel like the flagship of the city.

But the orchestra has always believed that its mission should go beyond Bamberg. In mainland Europe, the Bamberg Symphony has a name, but hardly anyone in the United States, for example, knows where Bamberg is. As soon as people hear a recording or come to a concert, they experience the quality for themselves. But before that happens, it takes twice as much effort to open people’s minds.

Sometimes you use a stick and sometimes you don’t. How do you decide?

The stick is an extension of the arm. This is only really necessary in an opera, where you have to be extremely clear so that everyone on stage can see you. And if you’re doing an Olga Neuwirth piece, where the counter changes with every bar and the musicians depend on every click of your hand, it’s useful to have it. But if the orchestra doesn’t need clear directions and the music flows in a way that doesn’t need a beating, then I can do without the stick. But I’m not dogmatic about it; it’s just a hunch.

You are a strong supporter of the prolific Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu. The Czechs place him alongside Smetana, Dvorak and Janacek, but he is much less well known abroad.

If a composer writes so many pieces, like Martinu did, you can’t play them all. The audience needs to focus, and you need to somehow reduce the legacy. In Martinu’s case, it’s not that easy to do. I find that my task is to limit myself to his late period, when he was the most original. And then I try to conquer an orchestra, which is the first thing for a conductor. If the audience sees the orchestra playing with a lot of fun, energy and effort, they take it for granted that it is worth it.

You have what you might call an effervescent style of leadership – very physically exuberant. How did you develop this?

It took me years. Although I am overwhelmed with the joy of what I do, I am also a very self-critical person. I started out more controlling and had to learn that the best results happen in a gig when you open up to whatever comes.

A common beginner’s mistake is to drive like crazy when you don’t have to. I had to find a way to navigate the orchestra so that they got something useful – not only technically, but also in terms of atmosphere and energy. In a Bruckner symphony, for example, there are 70 minutes of music, and the energy level of the musicians inevitably drops. It’s my job to guide things so that the audience never feels that way.

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Newsrust - US Top News: There are three versions of Bruckner's Fourth. Why choose?
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