Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 7 in E (1881-3) [69:04]
Czech Philharmonic/Lovro von Matacic
rec. Dvorák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague, March 1967
SUPRAPHON ARCHIV SU 3781-2 [69:04]
During periodic changes of music-storage format -- from vinyl to silver disc in the 1980s, and currently with the shift from hard discs to digital files -- it's not unusual for some recordings to fall "into the cracks," becoming unavailable as an older format disappears, not reappearing in the new one. Unfortunately, such more or less random cullings of the catalogue can result in a lopsided cross-section of a major artist's discography, misrepresenting that artist's work.
The Croatian conductor, Lovro von Matacic, recorded for a number of labels -- the handful he made for EMI were probably the best known outside the former Eastern Bloc. He had a good grasp of Bruckner, but you'd not have known it from his later concert recordings. A 1979 concert performance of the Fifth Symphony (Naďve V 5000) found the conductor pushing the boulder uphill, as it were, struggling to draw idiomatic sound and style from a miscast Orchestre National; the results didn't measure up to Matacic's Czech Philharmonic studio recording (Supraphon SU 3903-2 011 -- there also was a JVC issue). Similarly, an even later (1984) concert performance of the Seventh Symphony (Denon 32CO-2035) found the aged maestro struggling to exert fading control over the subpar Slovene Philharmonic The present Supraphon reissue of his 1967 studio recording, while not ideal, should help set things right.
As the opening theme patiently unfolds, the veteran listener will notice that the orchestra sounds "different." Rather than the Czech Philharmonic's customary lean, tapered sound, we hear a warmer, more cushioned sonority, though definition remains clear. Obviously, this is the engineers' doing - they've captured a "long" resonance in the Rudolfinum missing in later, drier Supraphon recordings from this venue - but the blunted attacks and releases are in keeping with the conductor's conception, and I expect Matacic was shaping the sound accordingly. The extra resonance also lends the tuttis an imposing heft.
With its slow movement placed second, the symphony falls into a structure of two expansive movements followed by two more energetic ones; Matacic, without disturbing the score's basic proportions, plays up the spaciousness throughout. The opening theme is about as broad as it can get while conforming to the indicated alla breve pulse, proceeding surely as the textures fill out. The conductor favors the basses, and it's good to hear them so prominently as they take over the second subject at 3:11; the quarter notes at 5:17, on the other hand, grunt heavily. The molto animato - bracketed in the Novak score, possibly a Nikisch emendation - at 11:42 in the development strides firmly, and from here out the development has a nice sweep. Against this are some questionable details: creaky transitional ritards break the flow, and woodwinds and horns too frequently sit a level or two above the indicated dynamics - although the attack at 5:04 shows that the reeds can play cleanly and delicately, and shortly before that, at 4:25, the upper strings' subito pianissimo is ear-catching.
The great Adagio is similarly broad, with hairpin dynamics providing a sense of shape in the mournful opening chorale; the strings take over with intense, saturated tone. If the second theme misses the dancelike elegance - I'm not kidding - suggested in other performances, it steps gracefully all the same, with the violins' aspiring lines evoking a restrained uplift. Matacic's insistence on precise releases in this movement ensures that the composer's silences make their full effect. Again, there are a few blemishes: at 3:34 the brass benches pretty much cover the violins, which unfortunately carry the theme alone; the divided contrabasses, perhaps uncertain of the pitch, land arthritically at 5:20; and, as before, the playing is frequently louder than indicated.
The sizzling, hushed pianissimo that starts the Scherzo immediately changes the mood. The movement's signature dotted motif stays springy; only very occasionally does it lapse into a lazy 2/4. The sparser textures at 1:17 are projected effectively; the violins' singing legato at 2:05 makes a nice contrast; and the slightly weighted rhythm at 2:12 produce a rustic feel. Where most conductors use the timpani solo as a tempo transition into the Trio, Matacic keeps it crisply in time, beginning the Trio directly Etwas langsamer as marked. The phrasing is tender -- though the horn at 5:02 gets unstuck from the strings -- and the rhetorical broadening at 6:15 is apt. The second time around the Scherzo, the trumpet call sounds more distant, in spirit if not in actual position.
The Finale, too, begins with quiet, intense tremolos. The dotted rhythms of the motif remain light and pointed as the basses take it up, and when it returns as an ominous tutti at 3:28. The second subject at 1:12, taking an unmarked meno mosso, has a properly sombre tread; in the development, the interplay of tempi between sections is deft. Brass control is inconsistent: the principal horn bobbles the attack at 1:31, for example - though the previous entry, at 1:01, is firm and clear - and a sour Wagner tuba at 6:18 dispels all mystery. Otherwise, dynamics are under much better control; when the playing is above the marked level, it's to highlight some specific line, as with the clarinets and violas at 9:14.
Note that the generous recorded ambience has drawbacks as well as benefits: the high trumpets have an unpleasant edge in tutti, and loud timpani rolls blanket orchestral detail, although soft ones don't compromise clarity. The boomy bass can make the pizzicatos distracting, as at 21:23 of the Adagio, in a quiet passage.
The E major symphony is one of those pieces that, while popular - comparatively so, for Bruckner - proves surprisingly elusive: it's difficult to get everything quite right. The most consistently realized recordings, such as Haitink's two Philips accounts, are more noteworthy for avoiding major mishaps than for offering galvanic revelations. Matacic's account, as noted, isn't always what one might hope, because of the erratic playing; but, for collectors, it has a great deal to offer.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Matacic in vintage form for this fine Bruckner Seventh … see Full Review