Symphony no.4 in E flat (last version of 1879/80) [61:15]
Symphony no.7 in E (1881-83) [64:21]
Basle Symphony Orchestra/Mario Venzago
rec. 23-25 August 2010, Casino Basel, Musiksaal
CPO 777 615-2 [61:15 + 64:21]
In 1993 the Swiss conductor Mario Venzago gave a performance of Bruckner’s 3rd Symphony with the now-defunct Milan RAI SO that impressed me mightily for its intuitive grandeur. He found the secret of letting the music breathe. So it is splendid news that he is now setting down a complete Bruckner symphony cycle.
The records come with lengthy notes explaining that this will be a Bruckner cycle like no other. I tend to be suspicious of performances that arrive with a 5-page manifesto attached. If people can’t hear what the conductor is driving at just by listening, it’s useless trying to brow-beat them into believing they’ve heard something they haven’t. In the present case, however, the performances are so awesomely magnificent that I did find it of some interest - afterwards - to read about his intentions. Somewhat puzzlingly, I seem to have been impressed and moved at times for reasons other than those for which I am apparently supposed to have been impressed and moved. On the whole I wish Venzago had just stuck to conducting.
Venzago’s Bruckner is surely here to stay. We will have time to analyze it in detail at leisure. So let me just list a few of the things that strike me.
Texture: Venzago’s curriculum reveals that he has spent a good deal of time unravelling contemporary works of the post-Nono variety. Maybe it is thanks to this that his textures have unfailing luminosity and clarity. Every instrument has its individual colour and voice and they all mingle without congealing into a generalized mass. Credit also belongs to the sound engineers - the producer is named as Andreas Werner - who have ensured that this all reaches us as it should.
Articulation, phrasing and attack: Great care is taken to give the dance-based sections their proper lilt. Particularly revelatory is Venzago’s pacing of the secondary material in the finale of Symphony no. 4. The phrasing suggests the influence of modern Historically Informed Practice. The first note of the theme that opens the Seventh Symphony, for example, is given a long expressive bulge, and then separated from the rising arpeggio that follows. This may sound dogmatic on paper and in some hands probably would be so. If it is not so here, I think this is due to Venzago’s colouring, pacing, and above all attack. Each Brucknerian period arises from silence and falls into silence. This means that the way a new period is attacked is fundamental. It is evident that Venzago has given a lot of thought to this. A new idea may slide in hesitantly, as at the beginning of the Fourth Symphony’s slow movement. Or listen to the depth of timbre as the drone bass in the trio of the same work’s third movement is sunk into. The sound is not directly attacked but taken by stealth and then allowed to swell out, like a human voice. The strongest sforzatos are never banged out with a straight, hard-hitting attack. Starting from a rounded attack, the sound is allowed to well out of the orchestra.
Tempi and tempo relationships: In the past conductors tended to be rhapsodic with Bruckner, speeding up in crescendos and slowing down in diminuendos. This was superseded by the “structural” approach which meant, at its most reductive, sticking blindly to whatever tempo you set at the beginning of the movement. If whole sections sound wrong at this tempo, this passes for “integrity”. It is certainly an easier approach to manage. A metronome could do it as well as a human conductor, perhaps better. Venzago analyzes the best tempo for each Brucknerian period, so that it is duly solemn, lilting, dancing, trudging or whatever. He does not make hysterical accelerandos within these periods. The single periods within a long movement may not always go at exactly the same tempo, however. The art of bringing this off lies in timing the pauses between sections and, again, dosing the right attack for the new section so that it convinces as logically following on from the previous one.
Silence, space and mountain heights: This is less easy to analyze and may be only my personal reaction. These performances all seem to take place at an altitude where the air is clearer, the vistas longer. In the end it is the music’s silences that prevail. The art of creating this impression presumably lies in a combination of the technical features I’ve tried to describe above. Though I suppose another conductor might mix the same features in such a way as to create a quite different effect.
Many years ago a critic in Gramophone - who I shall not name, though I suppose the review could be hunted down on their site if you really wanted to - discussed a set of Bruckner’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies played by a provincial German orchestra under a little-known German conductor. The critic had tart words (I’m quoting from memory but this was the gist) about ill-equipped bands setting forth in the Brucknerian ocean with their flimsy little rafts. He noted that the organ sonorities of the Fifth brought a degree of unanimity missing from the more complex rhythms of the Sixth. And, in a final lash of the pen, he commented that the notes were dedicated, not to the music, but to the “self-effacing genius of Günther Wand”. A few years later the Wand-wagon was in full swing, the critic in question one of its most august occupants.
I mention this as a prelude to sticking my neck out equally. At the risk of making a fool of myself in the opposite sense, I suggest Venzago’s Bruckner may be for the 2020s as iconic as Wand’s was for the 1990s.
Christopher Howell

Masterwork Index: Symphony 4 ~~ Symphony 7
Venzago’s Bruckner may be for the 2020s as iconic as Wand’s was for the 1990s. 

7;s was for the 1990s.