I've historically been one of those who could take or leave (mostly leave) Bruckner's symphonies (with the exception of the Ninth which hit me between the eyes when I first heard it and has continued to move me). The problem for me was that so often Bruckner is played as if it were tapioca: thick texture with lumps. I was generally bored enough by Bruckner to give up on him. Then I began listening to Günter Wand's CDs when they started coming out twenty or so years ago and he converted me. This DVD comes from a set that TDK is gradually releasing, taken from live performances with Wand leading the North German Radio Symphony (Hamburg). Symphonies Nos. 5, 6, 8 and 9 have already been released to great acclaim. Here we have Bruckner's most popular symphony, No. 4. It is of a piece with the earlier releases which I lauded in a review here at Amazon.
The DVD starts off with Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 3. This is certainly one of the best performance I've ever heard of it. It retains the seriousness of the opera for which it was written without becoming stolid or overblown and Wand's handling of variations in tempi and dynamics makes it viscerally exciting. The playing of the NDRSO is stunning with solid brass, silken strings, impeccably tuned winds. Forward motion is maintained without seeming to rush, and the triumphant final pages are well-judged. I had simply begun listening and watching this performance, knowing it was 'filler', out of duty, only to become enthralled by the animation of the performance. Bravo!
Bruckner's Fourth is performed in the composer's original version of 1878/80. One is struck by the non-showy conducting of Wand, a man who had always shunned the spotlight and who, in the last decade of his career in 1991, was already looking frail, almost gaunt. (He died in 2002.) His conducting style is seemingly easy and utterly secure -- he conducts both works without score -- and he appears to be in close visual communication with his musicians, sometimes giving them a twinkling glance at things he approves (but occasionally looking daggers when not pleased). The performance takes place in the Lübeck Dom, a Gothic cathedral with a long sonic decay time which somehow does not interfere with the crystal clarity of the orchestra's sound. The Fourth can sound bombastic in the wrong hands. Here it sounds spiritual, almost ethereal at times. The very important contributions of the horns, trumpets and trombones are rich and resonant; for a live performance it is remarkable that there are no noticeable clams. The first horn player is musical as well as being technically secure. I wish I could identify him by name.
Probably the main thing about this performance that stands out for me is Wand's ability to keep things moving forward, avoiding the tendency of some to glory in the rich sounds of the music, thus dawdling in it. As well, he somehow gets the orchestra to play the triumphant bits without it becoming bombastic. Lead-ups to the climaxes grow organically. This is, as I say, a spiritual performance that, I feel, captures the essence of Bruckner's message. There are many moments of calm and reflection, soft passages in which the balances are rightly judged, superbly played by the NDR musicians.
I might have wished for more camera time spent looking at individual musicians -- for instance, the important principal oboist is rarely focused on and we almost never see the concertmaster -- but am very happy that so much time was spent watching Wand conduct. I found this to an ideal performance of the Fourth and know that I'll be returning to it again and again in the years to come.