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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 7 in E major (1881-1883) (1885, ed. Nowak 1954) [67:24]
Wiener Symphoniker/Yakov Kreizberg
rec. live, June 2004, Konzerthaus, Vienna
Reviewed as a stereo DSD64 download from NativeDSD
Pdf booklet included
PENTATONE PTC5186051 SACD [67:24]

Having recently – and belatedly – reviewed Yakov Kreizberg’s Strauss waltzes with the Wiener Symphoniker I couldn’t wait to hear his Bruckner Seventh. Recorded live with the same band – he was their principal guest conductor from 2003 to 2009 – this album is the work of recording and balance engineers Roger de Schot and Erdo Groot respectively; they made a splendid team in the Strauss, so I had high hopes for the Bruckner. Yes, the music comes first, but in this piece especially a top-notch recording helps to reveal the multi-layered splendour of Bruckner’s writing.

My Damascene conversion took place 40 years ago, when I listened to borrowed LPs of Herbert von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker in Bruckner’s Eighth (Deutsche Grammophon). By turns fiery and eloquent that must be one of the finest performances he ever committed to disc; praise indeed from someone who never really warmed to the Karajan style. After that came the classic Vienna/Karl Böhm Fourth (Decca), Daniel Barenboim’s intermittently successful Chicago cycle (DG) and Günter Wand’s impassioned BP recordings (Sony-RCA). Sergiu Celibidache’s legendary Munich set (Warner) was a fairly recent discovery, as was Simone Young’s direct but always illuminating Hamburg series for Oehms.

When it comes to the Seventh, though, my current go-to version is Celibidache’s, recorded live with the BP in 1992; the Blu-ray was one of my Recordings of the Year in 2012 (review). Celi clocks in at an astonishing 90 minutes – most performances last around 70 – but the combination of the BP at their best and the conductor at his most audacious makes for an overwhelming experience. This is also a prime example of how a good, three-dimensional recording can aid one’s perception of the music, notably in those mighty, ‘terraced’ tuttis.

Rather like Otto Klemperer’s equally expansive account of Mahler’s Seventh – 100 minutes as opposed to the usual 80 – Celi’s Bruckner Seventh won’t please everyone, but they both deserve to be heard. I’ve also reviewed Donald Runnicles’ 2012 recording with the BBC Scottish Symphony, and while there’s much to admire the playing isn’t as polished as I’d like; also, there’s not enough of the weight and amplitude that I look for in these symphonies. No such qualms about Young, whose taut, persuasively shaped Seventh is one of the finest I‘ve heard in years. The SACD may have added presence, but the 16-bit download – available from eClassical – is still pretty impressive.

Celi is a one-off, a maverick, so Young is the obvious comparative here. She and Kreizberg both use the same edition of the score – 1885, ed. Nowak 1954 – and both are recorded live in DSD. The Seventh is one of Bruckner’s least contentious symphonies, so there isn’t a confusing array of performing versions to choose from. It’s also one of the composer’s most popular, and revisiting the piece for this review reminds me why; it’s structurally well-balanced, the scoring is wonderfully transparent and the whole edifice seems admirably secure.

Coming back to Kreizberg, his Strauss waltzes are characterised by supple rhythms, meticulous attention to detail – no hint of micro-management, though – and a pleasing sense of proportion; these are all desirable qualities when it comes to Bruckner. As for those long spans and magnificent, crowning bosses they demand the skills and precise calculations of a master builder. To a greater or lesser degree the conductors I’ve mentioned have the necessary credentials; it’s a very select group – among them the revered veterans Bernard Haitink and Eugen Jochum – to which only the best can be admitted. I’ve yet to hear Marek Janowski’s Bruckner, but then I generally find him too driven – and that’s not what I want in this music.

Kreizberg’s Allegro moderato is both spacious and refined; the recording is naturally balanced, with sweet strings and a full, sonorous bass. But it’s the detail that takes one’s breath away, the thousand little touches that give the score its inner glow. Add to that a winning way with Bruckner’s dancing interludes and you have a reading of rare character and insight. And while Kreizberg is not as direct as Young he never dawdles; indeed, he manages to pause and reflect without sacrificing pulse or progress. As for the orchestral blend, it’s simply marvellous, the WS sounding quite Wagnerian at times.

What Kreizberg brings to this music is an affectionate and disarming manner that pleases the ear and warms the heart. He also crafts a strong, varied and coherent narrative, its 'gear changes' seamlessly done. As for those rising horn figures, they unseam’d me in an instant. It’s one of many epiphanies in this great score, and both conductors judge it to perfection. Ditto the climax at the end of this radiant opener, although Kreizberg makes it peal more than most. A minor revelation, I know, but even at this stage it's clear we’re in the presence of a true Brucknerian.

The Adagio, unerringly paced and projected, is no less beguiling. Indeed, the prevailing air of hushed concentration propels one straight into the stalls, eyes fixed – in rapt attention – on the lighted stage. Once again I was struck by the way that Kreizberg segues one setting with the next. There’s a thrilling spaciousness to the performance too, the conductor building beautifully proportioned musical structures throughout. Then there’s the contrast between that impassioned peroration – so calmly prepared for – and the deeply affecting horns and quiet pizzicati at the close.

Kreizberg’s Scherzo is both playful and propulsive, and the timps sound much more adamant here than they do in the Strauss. Moreover, there’s a sense of music being caught on the wing, something that one associates with the live experience rather than a recording. Everyone is commanded to perform at their peak without any sign of being coerced or cajoled to do so; and that, too, is the mark of a great maestro. The WS certainly play their hearts out for Kreizberg; the liquid woodwinds in the Finale are a treat, the lower strings alert and warmly rounded. But it’s the vaunting brass – bold, burnished and perfectly scaled – who deserve special praise at the end. After that I’d like to think the applause was tumultuous.

I realise it’s foolish to seek a ‘perfect performance’, but having first reeled at this one and then reflected on it I must declare it the most satisfying – the most complete – Bruckner Seventh I’ve ever heard. Yes, Kreizberg’s recording has now supplanted Celi’s, but I’d still want both; and no, I’ve not forgotten Young, whose powerful reading has much in common with Kreizberg’s. How cruel that the latter was taken from us at 51; and how I would have loved to hear his Bruckner 6, 8 and 9, not to mention his Mahler. As for the Symphoniker, they may be Vienna’s B team but their exalted playing here surely puts them on a par with the front-rank Philharmoniker.

Bruckner Sevenths don’t come much better than this; one for the desert island.

Dan Morgan


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