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alternatively Crotchet

Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 7 in E (1881-3, ed. Haas) ((i) Allegro moderato [21:04] (ii) Adagio: Sehr feierlich und sehr langsam [23:28] (iii) Scherzo: Sehr schnell – Trio: Etwas langsamer [10:06] (iv) Finale: Bewegt, doch nicht schnell [12:20])
Aarhus Symphony Orchestra/James Loughran
rec. live, Aarhus Cathedral, Denmark, 28 April 2005. DDD

Scottish-born James Loughran became well-known when he took over as principal conductor of the Hallé Orchestra in 1971 after the death of Sir John Barbirolli. In Mancunian terms this was roughly the equivalent of inheriting Bobby Charlton's shirt or the task that someone will have when Sir Alex Ferguson eventually retires. Despite having an impossible act to follow, my perception is that his tenure was generally well-regarded and I recall with some fondness seeing him conduct the Hallé many times during the mid- and late-1970s. Together, they provided my personal introduction to the music of Austrian composer Anton Bruckner with fine renditions of the 4th and 8th symphonies which I can still recall some thirty years later. After his departure from the Hallé in 1979 Loughran initially went to Bamberg and much more recently he did a stint as principal conductor of the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra. His discography is not extensive and consists mainly of some Classics for Pleasure discs from the Hallé years - including a well-regarded Brahms symphony cycle which is still available - and some recent issues on the Danacord label.
As far I as can tell, this disc seems to represent Loughran's first recorded Bruckner and is derived from a single concert given in Aarhus in April 2005. The conductor's approach to Bruckner is much as I remember it - straightforward and unfussy. Tempi are middle of the road and remain steady. The Aarhus orchestra are committed and I am sure I would have enjoyed this well enough had I been there. But I am afraid the positives end there.

My immediate previous hearing of this work, just a few weeks ago, was Kurt Masur's performance at the Proms. I appreciated that considerably more than Jim Pritchard who reviewed the concert for Seen and Heard. I feel Masur had more to say about the work than Loughran and his rendition simply got better as it went along. If I was surprised by Masur’s rather low-key emotional approach to the slow movement, his scherzo bounced along more effectively than I have heard it before and his finale was beautifully sprung rhythmically, with magnificent punctuating brass chorales. Loughran's performance was the reverse - a good start with some very fine string tone in the first movement but thereafter failing to scale the heights. At the climax of the slow movement Loughran takes the controversial cymbal clash but it sounds very artificial here - almost as though someone had dropped something.

In the finale the Aarhus orchestra sound quite stretched and, overall, the playing of Masur's combination of two orchestras - the London Philharmonic and French National, seemed considerably superior to me most of the time. The Royal Albert Hall is also probably a much better venue for performing Bruckner than Aarhus cathedral, and I have some reservations about the very reverberant recording. The presence of an audience is frequently noticeable, pauses for coughing between movements are retained and there are a few extraneous noises here and there. Given these features and that this clearly is a real live performance - as opposed to a patched up multiple - it seems perverse even to me, no fan of applause on disc, to exclude this at the end.
Of course, one can't buy Masur's Proms performance on disc, at least not yet although it might warrant a BBC Legends issue in the future. He recorded the whole canon in Leipzig many years back but I have yet to hear those readings. The question for the record buyer is how does Loughran’s compare against well established alternative versions? The answer is, I am afraid, not well. This is a full-price offering and there are readings from great Brucknerians such as Karajan and Tintner available at mid- and bargain price respectively. If you want the work performed live then there is Giulini’s available on BBC Legends and Günter Wand’s Berlin version to consider. My own favourite, Haitink's later Concertgebouw reading from 1978 is missing from the catalogue at the moment but will surely return. All of these discs would seem to be a substantially better bet than Loughran’s. Ultimately, his Bruckner now seems to me a bit plain-spun, and transitions which seem quite magical in the hands of others such as Karajan show the joins.

Not bad but not competitive either.
Patrick C Waller


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