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Any review of Tintner's Bruckner cycle has to begin with the expression of a debt of gratitude. What Naxos and Tintner contributed to the Bruckner catalogue by choosing to record so much of the "unorthodox" Bruckner is of the very greatest value, and more often than not--as with the 1873 version of the Third--the results are not only convincing, but impressive. Having said that, and having given credit where credit's due, some restraint is needed in reviewing this recording of the Study Symphony (No. 00), and to give it a five-star review seems to suggest, erroneously I believe, that it could scarcely be improved upon.
Tintner himself recognizes in the liner notes the difficulty of making a convincing recording of the symphony, acknowledging weakness in the Finale and implying weakness overall, with the notable exception of the Scherzo (not the Trio), which he seems to think is at least as good as most early Bruckner Scherzi. After listening to his recording, one would be tempted to agree with Tintner's assessments (good and bad), but I believe that he's stacked the deck. That is, giving the piece a fair listening has been complicated by the fact that the Scherzo is the most well-performed of the four movements, and I can't help but wonder if perhaps Tintner's appraisal of the symphony adversely affected the quality of his interpretation and, therefore, of the orchestra's performance.
Never given to quick tempos--and I suspect this is a habit in part born of having a very good, though not exceptionally good ensemble at his disposal--Tintner's modest tempos for the outlying movements of the symphony have two significantly negative effects: first, the sluggish tempos derail the forward momentum of some inherently average musical material; correspondingly, the players tend towards somewhat lackluster, localized phrasing, especially in the brass. Granted, the score itself gives little guidance in breaking free of isolated gestures and in playing the overall line, but this is a recurring challenge in Bruckner's scores across his oeuvre, and all great Bruckner conductors--including Tintner on other occasions--have found a way to grapple with it. Here, however, Tintner has not escaped the oppression of the individual gesture to illustrate sectional directions and relationships, and so in that sense he has not let the music of this piece come out. The problem resurfaces in the secondary material of the second movement, where the frequent obbligato lines are often rather lifeless, and in the Trio of the third, where nothing much seems to happen beyond a play-through.
The slightly sluggish tempo chosen for the fourth movement led Tintner, I suspect, not to repeat the exposition, and for the balance of material across the movement, this is surely a mistake. We are just not given a fair sense of exposition before the movement begins to develop the material. I don't think the expository material itself is objectionable. In fact, played with a bit more enthusiasm and at the quick pace it seems to have been designed for, I am convinced it would be quite thrilling. Unfortunately, even at Tintner's chosen tempo, the ensemble struggles the most here, and many of the eighth-note passages in the strings are rather further from clean than one might hope.
Some of the most outstanding playing and conducting in the performance can be found in the second movement (There is some sensitive playing here--for example, just before the second statement of the secondary thematic material.), and, as Tintner must have recognized himself, the playing in the Scherzo is quite strong. Certainly this gives the impression that these parts of the symphony are of the highest quality from a compositional point of view, but again, I think perception and performance are inseparable here. The symphony needs to be given under hands and with players that don't start with the idea that it is merely a "study." The score will yield finer moments than this performance leads us to believe.
For all that, Tintner's record of the Study Symphony is a welcome document, as is the performance of the "Volksfest" Finale to the Fourth Symphony which concludes the disc, and I listen to it with sincere gratitude and enjoyment, at least until the five-star performance comes along.