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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 7 in E major (ed. Skrowaczewski) (1881-83 rev. 1885)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Stanisław Skrowaczewski.
rec. live, 24 October 2012, Royal Festival Hall, London. DDD
LPO LIVE LPO-0071 [68:56]

This recording was made during a concert in which the veteran conductor Stanisław Skrowaczewski appeared with the LPO. I remember reading the enthusiastic review by my Seen and Heard colleague, Colin Clarke - though I’ve deliberately not re-read Colin’s comments prior to appraising this CD. Having now heard this masterly reading of the symphony I’m very glad indeed that it has been preserved on disc.
Skrowaczewski (b. 1923) celebrated his eighty-ninth birthday three weeks before this concert. On the evidence of this performance in no way have his powers been dimmed by physical ageing though there is an undoubted wisdom in the way he conducts this score. He is no stranger to Bruckner: with the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra he recorded a complete cycle of the symphonies, and though I’ve not heard any of these recordings - an omission I must rectify - the cycle was well regarded by Terry Barfoot and by Patrick Waller. I see that, separately, Terry Barfoot gave a warm welcome to Skrowaczewski’s 1991 recording of this particular symphony. In his review Terry mentioned Skrowaczewski used the Nowak edition of the score. For this LPO performance the conductor used his own, unpublished edition of the symphony. How that differs from the previous Nowak or Haas editions I’m unable to say - Skrowaczewski follows Nowak in using cymbals and triangle to reinforce the climax of the Adagio - though, listening without a score, I couldn’t detect any noticeable changes. The overall timing for the studio recording was 68:45, suggesting that the conductor’s pacing of the music hasn’t altered much, if at all, in the intervening twenty years.
In Skrowaczewski’s hands the first movement unfolds spaciously. The lovely, long-breathed opening theme on violas and cellos is broad and almost yearning. The pacing of the movement is unhurried and patient yet even though the conductor makes the most of Bruckner’s lyrical passages never once did I feel he was overplaying his hand. There is great integrity to the interpretation and certainly no question of playing to the gallery. Skrowaczewski has a firm grip on the structure and I found his approach consistently convincing. The final peroration (from 20:19) is glowing and majestic
The Adagio is uncommonly spacious; indeed, I’m pushed to recall a version that I’ve heard which is as broadly conceived. Out of interest I looked out some highly respected live recordings by other ‘senior’ Brucknerians. Skrowaczewski’s overall timing of 24:23 compares with 21:44 in Günter Wand’s 1999 Berlin Philharmonic traversal; Reginald Goodall took 22:14 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1971(review); Bernard Haitink took 22:26 in Chicago in a very fine 2002 performance (review); while in Karajan’s last recording of the work, with the Vienna Philharmonic, the movement played for 23:12. Skrowaczewski definitely obeys Bruckner’s tempo instruction, which translates as ‘Very solemn and very slow’. To sustain such a broad basic tempo demands great concentration on the part of the conductor and the players; that never seems in doubt here. I can only describe the playing throughout this movement as burnished with the strings and the horns/Wagner tubas especially impressive. The movement is clearly seen by Skrowaczewski as a searching elegy and he plays it as such. All of Bruckner’s last three symphonies have magnificent adagio movements at their heart; a performance such as this particular one makes you feel that the Seventh’s slow movement is the noblest of all.
The scherzo has, in the words of annotator Stephen Johnson, “an obsessive elemental drive”. That’s how it sounds here, the rhythms powerfully articulated. However, when the trio arrives the music sounds suitably relaxed. The start of the finale has a theme that is unusually perky for Bruckner. Skrowaczewski makes it sound almost playful. He knits the three themes of this movement together into a coherent whole. The jagged unison theme, derived from the opening motif, always sounds purposeful yet elsewhere Skrowaczewski is prepared to allow the music all the space it needs to make its effect. The very end of the symphony (from 11:31) is magisterial but, then, one could legitimately use that word to describe the interpretation of the entire score. There is no applause at the end - indeed, as far as I could tell the audience doesn’t intrude at all - but I bet there was a huge ovation on the night; if there wasn’t there’s no justice in this world.

With their collective Bruckner tradition, instilled especially by Haitink and Tennstedt, one could make a strong case that the LPO is the London Bruckner orchestra. Here, directed by a conductor of Skrowaczewski’s stamp, they are in peerless form. The recorded sound does full justice to the quality of the playing.
This is a profoundly satisfying performance which always feels ‘right’. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say this may well be one of the finest ever recordings of the symphony; it really is that good. We can only be grateful that this magnificent performance has been preserved for posterity. All Bruckner collectors should add it to their collections without delay.
John Quinn

See also review by Ralph Moore

Masterwork Index: Bruckner Symphony 7