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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony no.7 in E (1883)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim
Recorded Deutsches Schauspielhaus, Berlin, February 1992
ELATUS 2564-60330-2 [70:42]

Daniel Barenboim is a man and a musician for whom I have the greatest admiration and respect – in particular his brave contributions to Arab-Israeli relations. He undoubtedly loves to provoke a reaction or a viewpoint, whether to his political activities or to his interpretations of the music he plays and conducts. It’s very difficult to be indifferent to the way he shapes his performances, and his powerful personality often makes you accept an approach you may not fundamentally sympathise with.

Barenboim’s liking for slow, broad tempi, and his search for extreme flexibility has led to his often being compared to Furtwängler, a conductor he certainly admires deeply. At his best, Barenboim does not automatically select the slowest possible speed; rather he stretches the scale of possible tempi, studiously avoiding the middle ground, the ‘comfortable’ speed for players and listeners. This approach has its severe risks, though. I remember a Barenboim performance of the Choral Symphony where, at the crucial first presentation of the ‘Ode to Joy’ theme, the double-basses set of at double speed, unable to believe the conductor’s extreme slowness. Ruined the entire concept of the performance.

What of this Bruckner 7? The opening is marked "Allegro moderato, 58 minims to the minute." What is crucial to a musician in these quite specific instructions from the composer is the fact that he has chosen the minim as his reference point, suggesting an underlying pulse of two beats in the bar. Barenboim actually starts a little slower than this, not much, but by the fifth bar of the wonderful theme, presented first by ‘cellos and horns, he has slowed down to little more than two-thirds of that speed. This tendency – to start broadly, but then get even slower – is manifest all the way through the piece. There are several lengthy melodies, and in each case, Barenboim robs them of their natural sense of growth and phrasing by allowing them to sag.

Of course, this is done in the name of expressive intensity, and the Berlin Philharmonic do respond sensitively, as you would expect. But overall, it means that the performance lacks momentum, and in Bruckner, that is serious. For me, this shortcoming undermines Barenboim’s reading, and leaves us with an interpretation of the total work which, despite its loving insights into many details, lacks cumulative power. If you compare the great first movement to, for example, Klemperer’s account with the Philharmonia on EMI, you find that the older conductor keeps the movement moving along, so that the overall effect is satisfying, as of a single line pursued to its natural conclusion.

If you think I’m being unfair, try listening to the beginning of the Adagio, and see if you can feel a pulse of any kind – I confess I couldn’t, and again, the movement seems to hang fire, to lack forward motion. The remaining two movements are better, the scherzo building powerfully, with a real rhythmic surge, and the finale lively and eventful. Somehow, though, that sense of exaltation and completeness remains elusive, and the final climax is not wholly convincing.

The sound is good, but lacking in a certain immediacy. It’s a well integrated picture, but lacking in brilliance, the thunderous tuttis rather tame. I have to reiterate that the BPO’s playing is very fine, but ultimately this recording is not for me – Barenboim is not as successful in this work as a number of conductors, in particular Klemperer as mentioned above, and Günter Wand on RCA.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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