Jerzy Semkow is a distinguished
artist, now past eighty, whose career has taken him throughout
the world but all too seldom to the UK. This is a cause for
regret, since both this recording and others that I have
encountered reveal him as a conductor of rare sensitivity
and insight. I well remember first encountering him, on a
Heliodor LP of Nielsen’s Violin Concerto and Helios
with Tibor Varga and the Royal Danish Orchestra, in exemplary
performances. The poetry he brought to that beautiful overture
set a standard that I have never encountered since.
Semkow is a natural Brucknerian,
possessed of a long-term vision and a logically unfolding
symphonic perspective. Climaxes evolve naturally rather then
being forced, while this live performance also features an
orchestra in accord with this approach. The audience is well
behaved, with few coughs and better still, no unwrapping
of boiled sweets. Their presence is confirmed by the applause
that follows after a healthy pause at the end.
The first movement doesn’t quite
generate the incandescence of the very finest recordings,
such as those by Karajan (EMI 4 76888-2) or, more recently,
Yannick Nézet-Séguin (Atma Classique SACD2 2512). Even so,
it remains satisfying on its own terms, with the different
elements of the score thoughtfully balanced and combined.
In Semkow’s performance the slow
movement, as so often in this symphony, is the jewel in the
crown. There is a solemn inevitability to the musical line,
and the climaxes are carefully built, until the final apotheosis
is capped by the debatable cymbal clash that raises the hackles
of some listeners. There is room for either approach - with
or without cymbal clash - in my book. I attempt to justify
my open-mindedness by possessing some twenty different recorded
performances. Another special aspect of the symphony is Bruckner’s
coda to this movement, the ‘funeral music for the master’ that
he added when he learned of the death of Wagner. The Polish
orchestra’s brass and woodwind here are exemplary and the
music is particularly atmospheric in terms of dynamic nuance.
The scherzo is given a lively rhythmic
emphasis, while the trio relates to it both subtly and compellingly.
The finale, as so often with this composer, is not the easiest
movement to bring off, but its pacing here seems admirably
designed to move the music through to a sonorous and satisfying
conclusion. This may not be a top recommendation for Bruckner’s
Seventh Symphony but it is undoubtedly a performance that
is well worth hearing.