A Towering Bruckner 4 from Karl Richter

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Bruckner: Symphony No. 4

  • Karl Richter (conductor); Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin)
  • Recorded 1977
  • Altus ALT-068 (1CD)

Karl Richter: harpsichordist, organist, Baroque expert, pioneer of the historically-informed performance movement, best known for his Bach. But Karl Richter the Brucknerian? Who would have thought!

Of course, underlying the superficial differences between Bach and Bruckner’s music are much deeper commonalities. Both composers were organists, and it is to that instrument that their respective compositional styles were linked, be it in suggesting its sonority or in actually writing for it. Both composers were deeply religious, their faith manifested in their music as an intensely spiritual, timeless quality. And both wrote music of extraordinary grandeur and scale, in Bruckner’s case no doubt harking back to the ideals of the Baroque style that Bach epitomised. So, in hindsight at least, the idea that Richter should branch out his repertoire to Bruckner after his long association with Bach isn’t so far-fetched at all.

This recording of the Fourth from 7 November 1977 shows Richter to be an idiomatic, sympathetic Brucknerian. He intuitively understands the importance of achieving the delicate equilibrium between horizontal tension and vertical sonority so central to Bruckner’s music. The first movement, taken very slowly, is meditative and monumental, bringing to mind none other than Celibidache. But tension doesn’t sag for a moment thanks to Richter’s patient shaping of phrases, masterful handling of transitions, and meticulous attention to dynamic detail. This broad tempo also allows the massive sonorities of the tuttis and climaxes to register fully, to glorious effect in the central brass chorale of the movement. Richter also has an ear for careful textural layering and timbral differentiation. Witness the opening buildup of the Finale, where Richter takes pains to clarify the staggered entries of the three trumpets (sample 1), or the Scherzo, where the call-and-response between the various groups of brass instruments have rarely sounded so balanced and well-defined.

But perhaps most impressive is Richter’s generosity in shaping the climaxes to emphasize Bruckner’s dramatic and expressive aims. Again, the opening to the Finale is a case in point. In most performances, the entire first theme starting from A is taken at more or less a steady pulse, highlighting its epic, granitic dimension. Richter, however, invests this theme with a welcome elasticity of pulse, pressing on immediately after the first eight bars of the theme (in unison) have been established (sample 1). At the very end of the theme (sample 2), Richter slows the music to a point of stasis and, at the perfect moment, releases all the pent-up tension in an earth-shattering climax; it’s one of those rare moments where time seems to be suspended.

The Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (now the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin) performs enthusiastically, especially the virtuosic (and pretty much flawless) brass section, and the radio recording is reasonably good. But ultimately, the star of the show is Richter’s cogent interpretation. His redoubtable musical intelligence, combined with his ability to bring out the majesty and splendour in music like few others do, was what made him such a great interpreter of Bach, and is what makes this performance such a great reading of Bruckner’s Fourth.


Karl Richter delivers a formidable Bruckner Fourth, one that fuses keen musical intelligence with drama and grandeur.

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