Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No 7 in E (1883) [65:26]
Sinfonia Varsovia/Jerzy Semkow
rec. in concert, St. Mary Magdalene Polish-Catholic Cathedral, Wrocław, 2005
DUX 0668 [65:26]
This may be one of the most accessible performances of what is arguably Bruckner's most listener-friendly symphony. Jerzy Semkow avoids overtly trawling the metaphysical depths, instead favoring the score's warm, open-hearted lyricism. The music's sense of spiritual affirmation ultimately emerges the more strongly, especially as the sonority maintains the needed tonal and harmonic weight.
Semkow allows himself old-fashioned tempo changes between sections, marked and otherwise - the latter an accepted Romantic device, though not one suggested by Bruckner's rugged contours - and generally makes them sound natural. Even the stepping up of the tempo at 11:13 of the first movement, at the bracketed alla breve - molto animato (letter "M" in the Novak score, possibly a Nikisch emendation), registers naturally, as a variant of the main pulse - compare Sinopoli's ludicrous, disjointed forward dash (DG).
The Sinfonia Varsovia, perhaps more readily identified with Mozart than with the big Romantic guns, plays with polish. The strings are clear and well-tuned, digging into the climactic chorales with resonant fervor. the violins maintain tonal quality even when isolated in soft passages. Perhaps there are a handful fewer string desks than in higher-profile orchestras, but there's still enough players to dominate the winds, while the clean, expressive winds, in turn, register more strongly within the doublings. The prescribed quartet of Wagner tubas adds a buzzy presence to the solidly balanced brass choir. As indicated, the ensemble sonority is firmly grounded.
The flaws will bother some listeners more than others. In passages marked piano and pianissimo, Semkow allows playing that's well above the indicated dynamic. When this is done to allow for a really full-throated voicing of the great melodies, or to bring greater definition and presence to supporting parts, it is unexceptionable. In other instances, however, the effect sounds careless and even counterproductive: in the Adagio's second subject (3:58) - set up with a nice sense of anticipation, by the way - the first violins give the theme the right sort of lift, but the thick supporting textures keep it relentlessly earthbound.
Also, at this stage of his career, Semkow's beat is better at conveying the broad musical arcs than at enforcing precise ensemble. Even relatively uncomplicated passages are slightly unkempt: in the Adagio's second-group recap, for example, the inner strings have trouble keeping their eighth-note accompaniments together. Coordination also becomes tentative during transitional ritards - a recurring problem, given all those tempo changes.
The engineering is well-nigh ideal for this writing. There is a moderate amount of ambience, noticeable after the cutoffs of loud chords, especially at the ends of movements. The rest of the time, it unobtrusively enhances and colors the sound of both ensemble and soloists. The clear, velvety reproduction of the solo woodwinds has an almost tactile appeal.
Surprisingly, given the number of recorded Bruckner 7s available, few entries have been really outstanding. The veteran Brucknerians Böhm (DG) and Klemperer (EMI) find their insightful readings dogged by control problems, mostly in the Adagio. Some listeners consider the various Furtwängler concerts sui generis; I don't, but limited, monaural sound rules out a firm recommendation, as it also does with Szell (Sony). In this context, the unfussy recordings by Haitink (both Philips), Inbal (Denon), and Rattle (EMI) score simply by virtue of avoiding major problems. Semkow's sincere, spontaneous account could be a worthy supplement to any of these.
Stephen Francis Vasta
see also review by Terry Barfoot
Masterwork Index: Bruckner's Symphony 7
A sincere, spontaneous account.