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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No 7 in E major (1885 version ed. Nowak)
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
rec. live 15 June 2019, The Royal Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
CHALLENGE CLASSICS CC72895 SACD [68:10]

This live recording of a concert in the NTR Saturday matinée series commemorates Bernard Haitink’s final appearance in Amsterdam before retirement. The Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra is no doubt a fine band but the timing of this release is slightly unfortunate, in that it places it in direct competition with one of the world’s top orchestras, the Vienna Philharmonic, in another live recording of the same work marking Haitink’s final appearance at the Salzburg Festival in August of the same year. That recording turned out to be superlative and I accordingly reviewed it very enthusiastically, making it a Recommendation and putting it on my list for the upcoming Records of the Year.

This performance is marginally swifter than that in Austria but we could hardly expect Haitink’s approach to be radically different, especially given how successful it has proved to be over the years. Indeed, there is nothing about this to dislike; it is steady, calm Bruckner which builds inexorably to climaxes and trips along winningly in the bucolic passages. The orchestral sound is marginally less weighty and glamorous than that of the VPO and the Dutch strings are not quite as well tuned in the arpeggios leading up to the climax of the Adagio, which in turn is not so overwhelming, but the differences are marginal. However, for me, there is also something special about the atmosphere of the Salzburg performance which is absent here - but that is a very subjective response; key points such as the magnificent brass peroration to the first movement still deliver. I make the same observation here as I did about that Salzburg recording: if you want more drive in your Bruckner this might seem a tad “straight” (or, as Haitink is wont to joke, “Dutch”) but you will find that greater propulsiveness in conductors such as Heinz Rögner (whom I like) or Norrington (not for me).

This is an SACD release but I listened on conventional stereo equipment and found the sound to be exemplary; there is very little audience noise apart from the occasional annoying cough (for example, at 7:56 and 19:49 in the first movement and at 18:00 onwards in the second) which presents a slight disadvantage compared with studio recordings. The notes by Kasper van Kooten present a good introductory overview to the history, content and reception of the symphony.

There are something like 450 recordings of this symphony in the catalogue, so it is reasonable to wonder how many more we need, no matter how good new ones might be. I find nothing objectionable about this live performance – although I wish individual track timings were provided in the listings - but can find no compelling reason to prefer it over scores more, unless you want a memento of a great conductor’s final appearance with this orchestra. The applause included is testimony to the fact that the audience thoroughly appreciated it, as well they might, although much of that must also be attributed to their wishing to pay tribute to their beloved departing conductor. The rapt ten second silence between the closing notes of the glorious conclusion and the ensuing cheers both speak volumes.

I remain mystified as to why recording companies issue CDs in plastic cases within cardboard sleeves when more progressive outfits – insofar as CDs continue to be issued in the age of downloads – are using more eco-friendly cardboard digipacks. I instantly recycle them.

Ralph Moore



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