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Anton BRUCKNER   (1824-1896)  
Symphony No. 7 in E (1881-3) [60:02] 
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Donald Runnicles
rec.8-9 May 2012, City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow. DDD.
HYPERION CDA67916  [60:02] 

Experience Classicsonline

Almost as soon as this disc had arrived for review Brian Wilson included the performance in his most recent download review. Like Brian, I was mildly surprised to find Bruckner’s Seventh clocking in at one hour’s duration. When I went to my shelves to dig out some comparative versions the first ones that I located - by Old Masters - were Haitink’s 2007 live version with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (review) and Günter Wand’s 1999 Berlin Philharmonic traversal, also taken from live performances, which Patrick Waller and I admired in our survey of Bruckner symphony recordings in 2009. The respective timings were 67:31 and 66:37. These are both versions that I rate highly. Had I left it at that - noting also that Karajan’s VPO version, which I deliberately left on the shelf since Brian had amply covered its virtues, plays for 66:15 - I might have anticipated that Runnicles would prove a bit light in the gravitas stakes.
However, a bit more ferretting unearthed another impressive version, Haitink’s 1966 performance with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. What’s this? The younger Haitink dispatched the symphony in 60:36! Furthermore, when I reviewed the recording in 2003 I found it very persuasive. So, there’s a precedent for a slightly less spacious treatment of the score and this feeling is, if anything, reinforced by a live 1954 performance by Bruno Walter (Testament SBT 1424) which runs for just 55:48. For ease of reference I’ll now refer to Haitink’s 1966 and 2007 readings as Haitink I and II respectively.
Before discussing the performance I should say that although Hyperion’s documentation is up to their usual high standard, including a good note by Stephen Johnson, there’s one glaring omission: nowhere does it say which edition of the symphony is being used. My belief is that Donald Runnicles follows the Haas edition but that, like several conductors, he reinstates the cymbals and triangle at the climax of the slow movement, which Haas left out.
At the start of the symphony I like the nice, natural flow of the music as the wonderful first subject unfolds. Runnicles doesn’t tarry neither does he push the music too fast; there’s a proper sense of space and it seems to me that Runnicles achieves a judicious balance between breadth and forward movement. Jumping ahead for a moment, I came to feel that this was the case for his view of the score as a whole. I’d describe his way with the music as direct and unfussy and I appreciate that. When the more mobile third theme arrives I wonder if he does press forward just a little bit too much (5:08 - 6:45) and he’s consistent in his pacing of all the music that flows from this material. However, I don’t feel that this is a major objection to his handling of the movement overall. The only point which does leave me rather uncomfortable is the big timpani roll around 17:00. This is overdone to the extent that the melody on the cellos is overpowered though the tremolando violins manage to hold their own. Broadly, Runnicles’ conception of this movement is along similar lines to Haitink I. Though I can certainly live with the slightly more fleet pace adopted for the third theme in these two versions my preference remains for the slightly more relaxed speeds that one encounters in Haitink II and with Wand.
In the slow movement Runnicles doesn’t achieve - nor, I suspect, does he aim at - the patrician gravitas of Wand or the older Haitink. They take 21:44 and 22:26 respectively against Runnicles’ timing of 19:09. Incidentally, it’s noteworthy that this is the one movement in which Haitink I is appreciably more spacious overall than Runnicles, taking 21:00. On the whole Runnicles imparts an air of solemnity without this being excessive. I do wonder if the second subject (from 3:29) is perhaps a little too fleet but for the most part I was impressed with the patient yet fluent way in which he unfolds Bruckner’s noble elegy: there’s dignity allied with directness in this reading. All of our three comparative versions are pretty much in line with Runnicles’ conception of the opening paragraphs. In Haitink I the pace for the second subject is marginally more easeful than in Runnicles’ performance. In Haitink II we find that the conductor hasn’t really changed his view of the pace for the second subject but in the 2007 version the phrasing seems more moulded and sophisticated. Wand offers a more expansive treatment of the second subject. Whilst my own preference is for a broad approach to this movement, as Haitink II and Wand offer, I’m bound to say that I find Runnicles very persuasive. The build-up to the main climax (at 14:52) is handled very well indeed in his account and the climax itself is a moment of fulfilment.
In the remaining two movements I don’t find a great deal to choose between our four competing versions. Runnicles drives the scherzo along purposefully, as do Haitink - in both his recordings - and Wand. Walter, who brings the movement in at an astonishingly swift 8:58, offers what is probably a heat-of-the moment reading; this is undeniably exciting but a bit too much of a white knuckle ride. Runnicles’ way with the trio is very relaxed. In the finale he makes the first subject sound sprightly, as it should, and the music wears a smiling countenance. He exerts a good grip over this movement but, then, that’s the case in all four versions under consideration.
So, how does this newcomer bear up overall in the face of comparative scrutiny? I’d say that Runnicles emerges from the comparison with no little credit. Those who favour an expansive, philosophical way with Bruckner may feel that Runnicles is a bit short-winded. Much though I love the Haitink II and Wand readings I’d disagree with that view. Earlier in this review I referred to Runnicles as direct and unfussy. That shouldn’t be interpreted as implying that he underplays the poetry or the nobility: such is not the case. However, he is clear-eyed in his approach and I find his reading refreshing. Brian Wilson used a felicitous phrase in connection with Runnicles’ tempo choices: “On the face of it, by moving each movement along a little faster than other conductors, he should emerge victorious, but the opposite danger is to appear too superficial. In fact Runnicles skirts around that Scylla and Charybdis neatly.” I think that’s a very fair assessment.
It helps that his conception is supported by the BBC Scottish SO playing at the top of their game. The competition against which I’ve pitted them is daunting: they don’t come much better than the Berlin Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony or the Royal Concertgebouw. However, the BBCSSO fares well in the comparisons and while they may not quite rival the sheer weight and depth of tone displayed by their illustrious rivals they produce a fine performance. Their playing has been beautifully recorded by producer Andrew Keener and engineers Simon Eadon and Philip Siney. The sound is excellent, combining clarity and depth; the sound of the brass has great presence, especially in the finale.
It’s relatively unusual for Hyperion to issue a recording of a piece from the standard orchestral repertoire but their decision to make this recording has been vindicated by the results. This may well be the first commercial recording by Donald Runnicles as chief conductor of the BBCSSO; if so, it’s an auspicious start.
John Quinn  

see also review by Brian Wilson

Masterwork Index: Bruckner 7

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