Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No 7 in E major (ed. Haas)
Staatskapelle Dresden / Herbert Blomstedt
rec. 7 March 1980, Dresden, Germany
DAL SEGNO DSPRCD046 [67:50]
Herbert Blomstedt’s Bruckner Seventh, originally recorded for Denon in 1980, possessed for many years the two main traits of a great collector’s item: first, it is an outstanding performance blessed with sumptuous sound quality; second, it has been exceedingly difficult to find. Aside from direct orders from Japan, this new reissue by the Dal Segno label marks the first time in quite a few years that the Blomstedt Seventh has failed to meet the second criterion, but happily it continues to exceed the first.
I have known more than one Brucknerphobe who fell in love with the Seventh Symphony after a listen to this disc. Friends more devoted to its composer describe the album with words like “iconic.” No wonder: the Staatskapelle Dresden play, as they do in all their Blomstedt/Denon recordings from the 1980s, with unmistakable majesty and a rich, sumptuous sound. This is a luxuriously appointed performance; the cellos’ gorgeous reading of the opening melody, especially as it soars up from under the initial horn accompaniment, makes me close my eyes, smile, and sigh with contentment. Here is beauty, warmth, humanity!
Herbert Blomstedt does not put a foot wrong. This is a rare recording in which the arrival of the first movement’s rather clumsy dance of a second subject, at 5:30, is not a letdown. The slow movement, at 24:30, feels perfectly paced, and although I really prefer not to have any percussion here, Blomstedt’s compromise (timpani, no cymbals or triangle) works well enough. I almost feel dishonest in an attempt to review the playing in this movement, for it is not a performance; it is an experience. The luminosity of the Dresden violins, the fullness of the orchestral sound, the beauty of the music itself all remind me of a remark I once made to a friend: that it is no use trying to talk about music in words because if the composers could have used words to express themselves, they would not have needed to create symphonies. Here is playing for which there are no words.
The rest of the symphony is just as engaging: the strings maintain their fullness and beauty, the scherzo is impressively stormy, the oboe and flute engage in wonderful dialogue in the finale, and the last three minutes are just thrilling, the orchestra producing such a mighty coda that for a second or two I wondered if there was an organ somewhere in there. This is the kind of playing that shuts down my ability to write critically.
There are many ways to approach this symphony. In recent years I have been greatly intrigued by Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s Vienna Philharmonic recording, which is very fast indeed at precisely 60:00, but which has a great sense of flow and, in the finale, wit. According to the very useful Bruckner 7 discography at abruckner.com, Roger Norrington, using the Nowak edition, has the record at 54:45. I do fancy Norrington’s speedy way with the opening movement’s second subject, but the rest of the performance, and the total absence of string bravado, leaves a very poor aftertaste. Other great recordings in my collection include those by Kurt Sanderling (Hänssler), Giuseppe Sinopoli (DG), Georg Tintner (Naxos), and Christoph von Dohnányi (Decca). But, although all but Norrington are very satisfying, when I listen to Blomstedt I can hardly imagine the music going any other way.
The horns, on the far right of the sound picture, seem too far back in the balance until a full climax arises and one hears the full brass section singing gloriously across the entire horizon. And the anguished horn cry in the coda of the second movement (21:22) sounds absolutely huge. The woodwinds, so easy to undervalue in a Bruckner symphony, have brought all their character to this performance. The clarity of the winds and strings is extraordinary; the second violins’ part at 11:00 in the second movement sent a chill down my spine.
I once heard the Seventh performed in a cathedral; this recording is not as reverberant as that marvelous concert, but possesses the same halo of divine warmth and the same feeling, at the climaxes, of being in the presence of something far mightier than oneself. What the sound quality preserves here is the sense of an experience, of being caught up in something much more meaningful than an orchestral concert. And an orchestral concert it apparently was, recorded, again according to abruckner.com, in a single night. There may have been patching later: I think I can hear an editing click at 5:20 in the first movement, present on the original Denon disc too.
Dal Segno have done well to bring this disc onto the market again, although they unfortunately are unable to release it in the United States, where finding this performance is if anything even more difficult than it had been in Europe. One thing Dal Segno have not done well, however, is to provide information on the original issue: even the year of recording is not included, and the identity of the original record label is betrayed only in the Herbert Blomstedt biography.
In sum: buy this disc. Do not tell your collector friends with old Denon copies that it has been reissued, for they are quite proud of the fact that they still have such a rare, such a spectacular Bruckner Seventh all to themselves. But do tell everyone else, and direct your American friends to websites with global shipping, for this is a rare spiritual experience as well as a terrific compact disc. Suffice to say that if I were forced to give up all but one Bruckner album for the rest of my life, this would be my choice.