Preparing to review this new recording, I dipped
into half a dozen others on my shelves, which proved to be an experience
both gratifying and slightly bemusing. It confirmed my somewhat heretical
conviction that if you put a good conductor in front of a first class
orchestra to conduct a Bruckner symphony, you will almost invariably
end up with a more than satisfactory result.
Oddly enough, all the preferred versions I listened to were live apart
from the 1970-71 Karajan studio recording - not usually the case with
standard repertoire symphonies. In truth, I could hardly put a Rizla
paper between them and this live LPO issue adds yet another to the many
fine recordings available. That’s not much use to anyone looking
for one, firm recommendation; on the other hand it also suggests that
you cannot go wrong with any of the most celebrated recordings of this
most approachable and popular of Bruckner’s symphonies.
As was the case with me, the Seventh is often the gateway to an appreciation
of this composer and it took me many years before I appreciated the
truth of Skrowaczewski’s assertion that “Bruckner is one
of the greatest composers … another Mozart: his music is magical
… its message speaks about the infinite, transcendental cosmos,
God, timelessness, love and tragedy.”
So does this live performance live up to that ambitious billing? The
veteran Skrowaczewski had just turned 89 at the time of this concert
last October in the Festival Hall and is supposedly currently “the
world’s oldest working major conductor”; no doubt someone
can contradict that. There is certainly no indication of waning powers
here and every proof of his expertise as a Brucknerian. Not one for
pulling tempi about, he conducts a firm, steady, controlled account
that flows and breathes naturally. At nearly seventy minutes, it is
closest in style, timings and conception to Karajan’s studio recording
although the analogue sound of the latter is rather muddy and brittle
- however, that is on my CD and I believe a re-mastered version is now
finally available. Quite the reverse is true here: the sound is brightly
lit and rather too close, robbing the music of much of the numinous
quality the score demands. The opening bars lack the hushed mystery
of Karajan or the aureate, Wagnerian glow of Knappertsbusch in his astonishing
live recording from 1949 with the VPO.
The opening of the Adagio shares a disadvantage also found in that Knappertsbusch
recording, being marred by audience coughing and the previously mentioned
closeness of the recording, which makes the violas sound a little wiry.
Beautifully played as it is, it does not quite achieve the perfection
of Giulini’s account with the BPO in 1985 or Sanderling’s
Stuttgart performance in 1999, although the four Wagner tubas are wonderful.
Skrowaczewski presumably borrows from the Nowak edition in his deployment
of cymbals and triangle at the climax of this movement; otherwise, we
are not told whether the Nowak or Haas edition, or a combination thereof,
is being used, though editorial issues in the Seventh are the least
contentious of all the symphonies.
Sanderling also takes a more whimsical and Mahlerian approach to the
Scherzo, whereas Skrowaczewski eschews both this and the more deliberately
powerful and imposing effect achieved by Karajan and Giulini, aiming
instead for a nervier and more driven presentation of the hectic triple-time
His treatment of the galumphing first subject in the Finale with its
wide, leaping, octave intervals contrasts neatly with the smooth yearning
of the second subject and is closest here to Knappertsbusch’s
conception. The biggest relative disappointment for me in this recording
is right at the end: Skrowaczewski is a little careful and does not
emulate the climactic glory that Karajan and Schaller generate - although
the latter undoubtedly has the advantage of the churchy acoustic afforded
by his recording location, the Abteikirche at the Ebrach Festival. Sanderling
runs them close for majesty but his Stuttgart strings suffer from some
Ultimately, this remains a very fine performance in sound which is slightly
too forensic and for all its virtues does not quite match the finest
half a dozen by the likes of Karajan, Giulini, Sanderling and Schaller.
I was surprised to conclude that for all that I love those versions,
the one which continues to absorb me most is the 1949 recording by Hans
Knappertsbusch. It is in remarkable sound for its vintage, but Kna is
decidedly more interventionist than is the norm and the venerable sound
rules it out as a prime candidate. There are safer options and despite
my minor reservations, anyone acquiring this new budget recording is
unlikely to be disappointed.
Anyone acquiring this new budget recording is unlikely to be disappointed.
Masterwork Index: Bruckner