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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No.7 in E (1884/5) (ed. Nowak) [56:45]
Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer
rec. Palace of Arts, Budapest, March 2012. DDD/DSD.
CHANNEL CLASSICS CCSSA33714 SACD [56:45]

We were not short of fine recordings of this symphony – in fact, the Seventh seems to have taken over from the Fourth as the most prolific of Bruckner’s works. There are 150 recordings in the UK catalogue, albeit that some of these are duplicates across the formats: CD, DVD, Blu-Ray. On CD Böhm (mid-price DG E4198582 and, from 1943, Preiser PR90192), Runnicles (Hyperion CDA67916), Maazel (BR Klassik 900711), Barenboim (complete symphonies: Warner 2564618912), Karajan (DG Gold 4390372, with VPO, and EMI 4768882, with BPO), Paavo Järvi (RCA 88697984452), Haitink (lower-mid-price Decca Virtuoso 4785690 with the Concertgebouw, or, in Chicago, CSR901704), Wand (with BPO, download only) and Tintner (budget-price Naxos 8.554269) and on DVD/Blu-Ray Thielemann (OA1115D/OABD7127D, with Wolf Lieder) all have their advocates.
 
The most recent of these, from Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Orchestra, caught John Quinn’s fancy last year – review – even against the strong competition of Bernard Haitink and Günter Wand. I compared it very favourably with my previous joint favourites, Herbert von Karajan (DG) and Marek Janowski (PentaTone) – DL News 2012/24.
 
Runnicles clocks in with almost the fastest speed on record, at barely over an hour whereas Karajan, Wand and Janowski take about five minutes longer. Both JQ and I thought Runnicles’ tempi a little risky, though the risk paid off. Now Fischer takes even more of a risk with an overall timing well under the hour. Is the result at all superficial? Not at all – the gain in excitement more than makes up for any lack of gravitas, making Janowski, to whom I listened immediately afterwards, sound sluggish in comparison in the first movement, even though the difference on paper is comparatively small: 18:42 against Janowski’s 19:10.
 
I’m not even sure that you will find any lack of gravitas in Fischer’s performance: the energy is coupled with warmth and understanding, and that’s partly due to the recording quality. The word that springs to mind for both performance and recording is ‘resplendent’. It has all the virtues inherent in SACD, of placing the instruments with pin-point accuracy. There are none of the disadvantages that sometimes seem to accompany those advantages in that I sometimes find the 2-channel SACD layer a little lacking in weight and power. Perhaps the engineers think that they should reserve the weight for the multi-channel tracks, in this case 5.0. Whatever the case, there’s no lack of power here, even in two-channel, Wagner tubas and all, so that the recording quality adds to my feeling that this is going to be my version of choice for future listening.
 
Audiophiles should note that in addition to SACD, mp3, 16/44.1 and Studio Master 24/96 downloads, channelclassics.com also offer Studio Master HD 24/192 and DSD versions of this recording. I haven’t tried any of the alternatives, though I know from experience how well their Studio Master downloads sound, despite the fact that for some reason, although I’m assured that they leave Holland at a fast bit-rate, they always seem to take a long time to download in my corner of SE London.
 
I’ve mentioned the recording quality before the orchestral contribution but that, too, is about as good as it gets. Karajan had the wonderful VPO and Wand the equally superb BPO. Runnicles extracts playing from the BBCSSO that’s at least in the same league and Janowski has licked the OSR into as fine a body of players as I’ve ever heard them sound, even in the halcyon days with Ansermet. The Budapest Festival Orchestra are fully the equals of all these on the new recording.
 
The Hyperion recording comes in 24/96 format, so it’s broadly comparable with the two-channel SACD layer on the new Channel Classics recording and the resplendent quality of sound there, too, adds greatly to my continuing enjoyment of that recording. Though Runnicles actually takes slightly longer still than Janowski, at 19:17 for the first movement, I still felt that he was moving the music along as effectively as Fischer.
 
I hadn’t associated Iván Fischer with Bruckner. I don’t think he has recorded any of his music before; certainly there are no recordings in the current UK catalogue. Even so, I have enjoyed many of his other recordings for Philips and more recently for Channel Classics. This new recording is one of his very best, on the same level as his Dvořák symphonies. A criticism is that the booklet takes too much space trying to compare Mozart and Bruckner; some of the comparisons are rather banal. It also fails to tell us which edition of the score was employed. In all other respects, this is a resounding success.
 
I don’t give accolades any more readily than I used to give top marks as an A-level English examiner. That said, this new recording has been sufficiently eye-opening for me to decide that if I’ve already awarded Karajan (DG, with the VPO) and Janowski joint honours, this should stand alongside them at or close to the top of a very distinguished list of recordings of this popular symphony, as a Recording of the Month.
 
Brian Wilson

Masterwork Index: Symphony 7