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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No 7 in E (1885, ed. Haas)
((i) Allegro moderato [21:49] (ii) Adagio: Sehr feierlich und sehr langsam [22:54] (iii) Scherzo: Sehr schnell – Trio: Etwas langsamer [10:30] (iv) Finale: Bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell [12:50])
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin in October 1970 and February 1971
EMI KARAJAN COLLECTION 4-76888-2 [68:06]

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Karajan made three studio recordings of Bruckner’s 7th symphony, of which this was the first. It is a version of high repute which I have never managed to hear before now. My immediate reaction was very positive. There is a tremendous sense of mystery in the opening, and great pathos leading ultimately to repose in the slow movement. Throughout the work transitions are seamlessly managed and Karajan’s structural grip never wavers.

A quote from the Gramophone on the liner suggests that this is "arguably the most purely beautiful account of the symphony there has ever been on record". Despite my scepticism of such claims, I would have to concede that it does encapsulate an important element of this recording – the playing of the Berlin Philharmonic is very beautiful. Whether there is a price to pay for it could be questioned. The scherzo is, I feel, the least successful movement, lacking in rustic charm and framing a trio which becomes a supplementary adagio. Perhaps Bruckner’s marking Etwas langsamer (somewhat slower) is ambiguous but he surely can’t have meant this much slower. A case of beauty before truth here perhaps?

In his interpretations of this composer, Karajan had a reputation for consistency over long spans of time but this can be questioned. His later 1989 studio recording, made in Vienna for DG just before his death was significantly tauter in the first movement and less langsamer in the trio, although the tempo there was unsteady. One similarity between the 1970/1 and 1989 versions is that the ending of the work fails to convince completely. Overall, I prefer the earlier version, despite less immediate recorded sound. The recording quality is nevertheless perfectly acceptable for the period. The disc is now offered at lower mid-price and is attractively presented as part of "The Karajan Collection".

I also made a comparison with my own personal favourite version of the work – Bernard Haitink’s 1978 remake with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra. Unfortunately, at the moment this version seems to be unavailable - both the complete set and a Philips Duo contain his earlier, less compelling reading of this work. Perhaps Karajan is marginally preferable in the first two movements but to my mind Haitink wins the last two at a canter with perfect tempi and mood in the scherzo and trio, an opening to his finale that really dances and great conviction in the final coda. So my loyalty to Haitink was not displaced after all. Nevertheless, despite some reservations, Karajan’s first studio version of Bruckner’s 7th is well worth seeking out.

Patrick C Waller


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