Bruckner’s Thrilling ‘Romantic’ Symphony: A Delight for Lovers of Derring-Do in Classical Music

ByQuyen Anne

Jul 20, 2023

A new CD of the symphony (conducted by Thomas Dausgaard) brings its all drama to life – from the chase of a hunt, to a rustic love scene

Blazingly impressive: Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard
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What a promising nickname Bruckner’s fourth symphony has, especially for listeners who enjoy music revelling in pictures of derring-do and ardent passion. Look at the programme Bruckner later penned to the symphony, and it seems even more promising. “Medieval city – dawn – morning calls sound from the towers – the gates open – on proud steeds the knights ride into the open – woodland magic embraces them – forest murmurs – bird songs…” And that’s just the first movement.

Anton Bruckner | SpotifyThe second movement he described as a “rustic love-scene” in which “a peasant boy woos his sweetheart, but she scorns him” (a scenario the country boy Bruckner, something of a misfit amongst the sophisticates of his adopted Vienna, knew all too well). The Scherzo third movement the composer dubbed “The Hunting of the Hare”, with the beautifully lilting Trio section being a “Dance Melody During the Huntsmen’s Meal.” About the Finale he was vaguer, describing it simply as a “Folk Festival”.

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There’s a charming naivety in these descriptions, and the music itself is often suffused with twittering bird-calls, rollicking horn-calls and lilting country dances that hark back more than half a century to the era of Schubert and Beethoven. But they are not the whole story. There are also those typically “Brucknerian” passages where the composer evokes a cosmic immensity rather than a historical scene, like the mysterious beginning of the first movement, for which the description “medieval city” seems strangely inapt.

Which way the symphony tends – warmly romantic or grandly cosmic – depends very much on the performance. This new recording from the Bergen Symphony Orchestra under Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard tends towards the romantic, but not because he revels in those picturesque details. It’s not charm and sentiment Dausgaard is after, but ardour, so tempos are on the whole brisk and airy. The sound may be often be blazingly impressive, but it is never heavy, not even in the huge full-orchestra utterance to which the trembling introduction leads. The horns in the “hunting” scherzo chase so thrillingly fast they almost trip over each other’s heels – but don’t, because the Bergen players are so impressively virtuoso. It’s more the flight of airy spirits than the clatter of horse’s hooves. Similarly the second movement is too austere and elevated, the pace too slow and funereal in feeling to be the picture of some lovelorn peasant.

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As for the finale, Dausgaard manages to gather the music’s innumerable diversions into one overwhelming drive towards the stupendous ending. For those who prefer this symphony cushioned in Schubertian lyricism and warmth, the recording from the Berlin Philharmonic and Günter Wand on RCA is the one to go for; for unusual blazing urgency this new one is well worth a listen.

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