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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 7 in E major (1881-1883) (1885, ed. Haas) [90:00]
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sergiu Celibidache
rec. live, 31 March-1 April 1992, Schauspielhaus, Berlin
Documentary: The Triumphant Return [54:00]
Directors: Rodney Greenberg (concert), Wolfgang Becker (documentary)
Picture: 16:9, 1080i Full HD. Documentary: 4:3
Sound: PCM Stereo only
Subtitles: German, English, Japanese
Region: all (worldwide)
EUROARTS 2011404 [90:00 + 54:00]

Experience Classicsonline

Celibidache’s near legendary Bruckner recordings have a chequered history; Deutsche Grammophon’s Stockholm and Stuttgart cycle from the 1960s and 1970s was quite widely available, but Sony’s Munich videos ran into legal problems and were recalled soon after their release on LaserDisc and VHS. As for the later - audio-only - Munich recordings, these are now available in a reasonably priced EMI box. Delving into the background to this 1992 Berlin Seventh I was surprised to find several CD and DVD issues from obscure - presumably ‘pirate’ - labels; Sony also released this on LD and VHS.
As with the Munich Philharmonic Eighth, I first encountered Celibidache’s Seventh - the live recording from Tokyo - while channel-hopping late one night; I may not have heard it all, but I came away from this transfiguring event a convert. Celi’s expansive - some would say sprawling - way with both scores defies musical logic; at these speeds they really ought to crash and burn, and yet they have a lift and loftiness I’ve not encountered anywhere else. If that Tokyo Seventh could take wing at all, then this Berlin one would surely soar.
There’s a history behind this concert, outlined in the accompanying documentary. I’ll comment on that after the performance, as there are some technical issues that need to be aired right away. This concert was filmed in 4:3, the roughly square picture we remember from our CRT days, but Euroarts have decided to mimic widescreen - 16:9 - by masking the picture at top and bottom. I doubt anyone with even a modicum of interest in this event would welcome the change, as it results in heads being ‘chopped off’. Thankfully the documentary has been left in its original format, and I suppose we must be grateful no attempt was made to synthesise a surround audio mix as well.
Then there’s the question of performing editions. Bruckner’s 1883 score only exists as an amended autograph; Gutmann’s 1885 score was thought to include unauthorised alterations by the conductor Artur Nikisch and others. The Haas edition of 1944, which uses some of the original - albeit compromised - 1883 score, is a valiant attempt to get back to the composer’s first thoughts. That said, he omits the cymbals, triangle and timps from the Adagio, something that Celi - who’s wedded to Haas in this symphony - reinstates.
Faith is an unfashionable subject in this secular age, yet it’s almost impossible to hear this music without being keenly aware of this composer’s abiding humility. From the simple surrender of those opening bars to the charm at its dancing heart and the unfurling grandeur of its close this Allegro is truly divine. Celi is measured but not rhetorical, and the music is allowed to move and breathe in the most natural way. The all-important blend and balance that creates those echt-Brucknerian sonorities is there too; what a noble vintage compared with the acidulous plonk of Franz Welser-Möst’s recent Bruckner Eighth (review).
The HD picture - upgraded from the standard-def original - is pretty sharp and the colours are true. More important the sound has a penetrating warmth that ravishes the ear and batters the heart. The horns and brass are especially well caught, and there’s some wonderful flute playing too. Günter Wand’s live Berlin account for RCA - recorded in 1999 - has similar amplitude but it has harder edges and more thrust; by contrast, Celibidache finds a degree of inwardness and vulnerability here that’s deeply affecting. And in the movement’s final, multilayered peroration - where the music ‘gathers to a greatness’, as Hopkins would have it - Celi is sans pareil.
The Berliners surpass themselves too, playing with a commitment and passion that’s rare these days. There’s a lyrical intensity and singing line in this Adagio that will take your breath away, and those dark, plangent brass chorales would make the angels weep. At times this band sounds like a giant chamber group; they’re alive to the subtleties of internal balance and move seamlessly from one long-breathed phrase to the next. It really is a wonder to behold, with every strand of this great score laid bare in the most convincing and organic way. It’s a long movement, and there is a hint of longueurs towards the end, where even the camera’s eye is tempted to rove the hall.
Really, that’s a small price to pay for music-making of this calibre, aided and abetted by sound of astonishing range and fidelity. Indeed, the sonics here are among the very best I’ve encountered on Blu-ray, and they put some recent discs to shame. Every timbre is most faithfully rendered, each fragment heard without recourse to the kind of audio trickery that mars so many filmed concerts. Rodney Greenberg’s direction is invariably discreet and well-informed; in fact it’s a model of its kind, with only the compromised framing a reminder of that dubious decision to go wide.
The tally-hoing trumpets and canter of the Scherzo are nicely done. Remarkably, Celi still looks as fresh as an alpine flower, although the orchestra - the brass especially - do sound a little tired. And not even this gifted maestro can hide the joints and seams of the Finale, which so often makes me think of a revivalist preacher entangled in his own fiery rhetoric. That said, this is still a noble, stirring Seventh, and I doubt we’ll hear its like any time soon. Given the prolonged applause and heartfelt cheers I’d say the audience agrees.
I usually have to force myself to watch these ‘bonus tracks’, but this hour-long feature by Wolfgang Becker is more illuminating than most. It dips into Celi’s career with the orchestra after the war and hints at the politics that separated them in the 1950s. The archive footage shows a young man of flamboyance and gypsy good looks who also had quite a temper. Much of Becker’s film is dedicated to conversations with older members of the band and rehearsal clips for the Berlin Seventh.
It’s a measure of this conductor’s forensic understanding of the score - not to mention the Berliners’ collective skill - that this music can be so carefully picked apart and reassembled with such precise and astonishing results. There’s little sign of ill temper here, except for parade-ground barks of ‘Firsts!’ and ‘Seconds!’, with many images of an ageing maestro prone to gentle philosophising. In that sense this is a telling - and affectionate - portrait of a man in his twilight years, yet still possessed of a riveting intellect and powerful podium presence. Now if only all ‘extras’ were this interesting.
A uniquely satisfying Seventh; a must for all Brucknerians.
Dan Morgan  

see also review of DVD release by John Whitmore

Masterwork Index: Bruckner 7






































































































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