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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 4 “Romantic” (Nowak version) [66:59]
Symphony No. 7 (Haas version) [67:47]
Staatskapelle Dresden/Herbert Blomstedt
rec. 1980/81, Lukaskirche, Dresden
MDG 6502150-2 [66:59 + 67:47]

This release is the product of a new partnership between MDG and Denon which will see the re-release of many jewels in the Denon catalogue and make them more widely available outside of Asia. They’ve started strong with this one, and if it’s a sign of things to come then they’ve done us all a favour.

These Bruckner performances are forty years old, but they sound freshly minted, and they radiate authority. This sort of disc could easily pass you by, but don’t let it because, if you’re a Bruckner fan then, you will find it ticks pretty much every conceivable box.

For one thing, the orchestral playing is fantastic, and it’s captured in early digital sound that is nothing short of ear-popping. There is nothing like the opening of Symphony No. 7 as you’ll hear it played here. I was so entranced when I heard it that I could only scribble in my notes, “totally Dresden!” That yearning upward span of the cello melody unfolds against a tingling shimmer that is full of hope, suggestion and colour. It’s utterly spine tingling and sets the tone for a pair of quite sensational performances.

The Staatskapelle Dresden have an authority all of their own when it comes to this core Austro-German repertoire, and they sound like the smoothest of well-oiled machines. Every component is built together in such a way that allows for not a single crack in the texture. The winds have a choral quality, such as in the dazzlingly fresh second theme of No. 7’s opening, and the strings create the most sensationally warm bed of sound that sings in its own completely individual way. Listen, for example, to their chocolate mahogany tone at the start of No. 4's slow movement, and not just in the cellos' opening theme but also in the full string cadence that follows, which envelops the listener like a warm embrace. Contrastingly, they bring surprisingly sensuous warmth to the second theme of No. 7’s finale.

Every so often the trumpets and trombones emerge with a distinctive rasp, but mostly the brass are remarkable for the quality of their integration into the musical texture. They lend an immense sense of majesty to the first great statement of the main theme of 4's finale, and the rich underpinning of the climaxes is never in the slightest bit forced.

Hebert Blomstedt conducted these performances nearly half his lifetime ago, but he already sounds completely in control of his brief, and his sense of the symphonies’ vision and unity is sensational. He brings something totally unique to this music. Even though he was younger then than Christian Thielemann was when he conducted his Dresden cycle, he still brings a completely distinctive sense of authority to the music. Dare I say he sounds as though he has less to prove? So there's a more relaxed authority to his conducting: the music sounds as though it's unfurling completely naturally, but also that there's an undisputed master in the cockpit.

Listen, for example, to the masterly way he shapes climax of No. 7’s second movement: the long, slow build-up is paced with rock-like certainty, and each instrumental component, from whirling strings to foundational brass, is built into the texture in a way that sounds utterly unarguable. Likewise, there is a lovely sense of build through No. 4's opening theme, Blomstedt using that magical opening as a launchpad into something greater, rather than wallowing in it for its own sake. However, he also understands the importance of contrasts. No. 7’s Scherzo feels like a fleet-footed jig – not a phrase one regularly associates with Bruckner! – and No 4's is even more exciting.

So this release is actually rather wonderful: it’s Bruckner’s two most popular symphonies, played by the most burnished and golden of European orchestras, and conducted by a master of unerring vision. Comparisons with Karajan (No. 7) and Böhm (No. 4) are not misplaced. In short, a winner!

Simon Thompson

Editor's note
These recordings were also released in 2010 by Dal Segno (4: reviews; 7: reviews).

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