To the lay listener, the issues surrounding the multifarious editions of Bruckner’s symphonies are so impenetrable that the only possible beneficiaries of the situation can be Bruckner scholars. The composer’s own reworkings, coupled with revisions by later editors, has resulted in a veritable catalogue of editions.
As Simon Rattle, introducing this programme, commented, there are some eight possible versions of the Fourth Symphony in E flat to choose from, and to attempt to describe precisely what we were to hear (prepared by Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs for the Bruckner Complete Edition) would be to risk causing us to lose the will to live.
The Fourth, sometimes known as the “Romantic” – though the sobriquet would be equally applicable to any of Bruckner’s symphonies – is particularly problematic because the composer made no fewer than three attempts before arriving at his definitive score, in the process writing a completely new Scherzo and radically revising the finale. This concert provided a rare opportunity to hear the rejected movements, receiving their UK premieres.
Horn calls are predominant in all the versions, but the discarded Scherzo features endless repetitions of such a call. For all its spectral quality (beautifully captured by Rattle and his LSO forces), I think I might have screamed if I’d heard it one more time. Intriguing as this glimpse into Bruckner’s workshop was, few would dispute that he found the perfect solution in his definitive “hunting” Scherzo, with its thrilling horn and trumpet flourishes.
No less fascinating was the discarded 1878 finale, its title Folk Festival alluding to the captivatingly folksy secondary material. This version shows Bruckner well on the way to the magnificent movement we know. After the interval we heard the complete symphony in a version variously said to date from “1878–1881” or “around 1882”. The imprecision is forgivable.
Both the opening and closing movements evoke mountain ranges with brass-capped peaks and glowing sunrises. Not only were these sublime moments ineffably moving, but Rattle was also able to command our attention with the valleys in between: the rustic or tender episodes. Close your eyes in the grand moments and the immaculately voiced LSO sounded like the organ the Barbican Hall lacks. Enough horn entries to last a season and not a single one fluffed: take a bow Timothy Jones and Diego Incertis Sánchez.
In past decades the outstanding Bruckner interpreters heard regularly in London were Bernard Haitink and Gunter Wand. Rattle’s approach is different from either, but on a similar level of mastery.