Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No 7 in E major (ed. Haas) [67:50]
Staatskapelle Dresden/Herbert Blomstedt
rec. 7 March 1980, Dresden, Germany

A pleasure to welcome back to the catalogue – and at a competitive mid-price – this excellent version of a great symphony. Dal Segno are proving to be very judicious in their trawling of the back catalogues of various companies. Recently I reviewed two discs of Strauss Tone-Poems from the same original source – Denon – and the continuity here with those discs both artistically and technically is striking. There seems to be some confusion over when Denon made this recording; Dal Segno’s own site says in 1985 but very specifically states the date as 7 March 1980. Assuming the latter to be correct this places it before the start of the compact disc age and near the beginning of digital recording. I mention this only to highlight just how good the Denon engineering was for a time when many companies struggled to produce digital recordings with warmth and detail as well as dynamic range. The recording venue of the Lukaskirche in Dresden is ideal for this kind of epic work allowing a spacious acoustic into which the music can expand without excessive resonance clouding detail.

I do not intend to go into undue detail comparing and contrasting various versions although one direct comparison might be of interest. Eugen Jochum recorded it with the same orchestra in the same venue just four years earlier as part of a cycle for EMI (now available as a fine set from Brilliant Classics). Jochum preferred the Nowak edition and Blomstedt the Haas. The editorial choice has fewer implications in this symphony than others being more an issue of orchestration rather than form. The more I listened the more I was reminded of the Strauss Tone Poems mentioned above. Simply put, Blomstedt favours an austere, perhaps even reverential approach. Jochum allows the music a greater degree of rubato. Technically the Denon/Dal Segno is finer but the Jochum is better in that regard than I remembered. Indeed it could be argued that the EMI analogue sound integrates the orchestral sound into an organic whole whereas the Denon dissects it. I like the way the Wagner tubas for Jochum lour over the strings at the opening of the slow movement like some impending storm-cloud. It’s a heavy more doom-laden moment which Jochum capitalises on with significant ebb and flow both in terms of tempo and dynamic. The Dresden strings are magnificent in either incarnation. Jochum opts for the possibly editorial cymbal crash at the climax and Blomstedt does not; although my head tells me Bruckner probably did not write it and it is wrong my heart rather likes it being there. The Denon recording copes better with this climax but somehow Blomstedt does not achieve the cathartic release of Jochum even though the analogue recording goes somewhat opaque here. Conversely, Blomstedt earlier in the same movement, is unsurpassed at giving the music an innocent song-like quality that is simply delightful. I should stress though that this is all a matter of degree and both approaches ‘work’ due to the cogency of the vision and the excellence of the playing. I will quickly mention other versions I listened to for comparison. I know many find Karajan’s – literally – final recording with the Vienna Philharmonic on DG sublime. For sure there are many marvellous moments but I find them tempered by passages which feel as though the orchestra were less than certain in the technical direction their failing conductor was giving them. Also, the DG recording is not as good as some. Chailly on Decca – recorded in the mid-eighties using the Berlin Radio Symphony was long held as a number one choice. By that time Decca had sorted many of the early issues with digital recording and technically this still sounds very well. But it is no better than Denon and is less ‘complete’ as an interpretation than Blomstedt. One last version – which I simply cannot get my head around at all – is the authentic(?) approach by Herreweghe on Harmonia Mundi. The stated aim is to relate Bruckner back to a Schubertian/Mozartian heritage rather than forward as a precursor of Mahler and Strauss. To my ears it sounds underpowered and impatiently hurried. Blomstedt – as mentioned above – is able to link the past to the future to create a very satisfying whole.

Timings alone rarely tell more than a fraction of the story. But I think that it is no coincidence that both in overall timings and in individual movements the Blomstedt performance lies in the middle of the five versions I have compared. Quite literally this is interpretively the middle path. I hope that does not sound like faint praise. This is one of those pieces that defies a single ‘best’ version. If you listened only to Blomstedt you would find it – quite rightly – to be totally satisfying in every respect. Certainly it would prove to be a persuasive introduction were one a newcomer to the work. Bruckner the man is often described as humble and modest. In the best sense I hear this simplicity in Blomstedt’s approach – he does not avoid or underplay climaxes but at the same time they are not exploited for simple sensory indulgence.

Dal Segno’s packaging is somewhat minimal – a basic description of the work and biography of Blomstedt. Even at mid-price some companies are able to present discs more impressively than this – even the cover of the disc is generic. No recording information is provided. All of which, ultimately does the performance a disservice. Anyone unaware of this performance’s stature browsing in a store would almost certainly pass over this disc in favour of something more superficially alluring. Personally I will always be more drawn to the impetuous humanity of a Jochum for this work but this version remains a superb testament to a great orchestra and an impressive interpretation.

Nick Barnard

An impressive interpretation and a superb testament to a great orchestra.