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Bruckner sy7 MYR030
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Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 7 in E major, WAB 107 (ed. Nowak, 3rd revised ed. 2003)
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/François-Xavier Roth
rec. live, 8-10 October 2019, Kölner Philharmonie, Germany
MYRIOS MYR030 [57]

With this release, François-Xavier Roth and the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln embark on a Bruckner cycle with the aim of completing it in time for the composer’s bicentennial in 2024. I think Roth is one of the most interesting conductors currently before the public, though I must say Bruckner is not a composer with whom I’d previously associated him. That said, I learned from the booklet that for his inaugural concerts as Principal Conductor of this orchestra, he chose Bruckner’s Fourth.

I have to admit that I have found this a somewhat perplexing release. It’s important to say at the outset, though, that I have no reservations about the quality of the playing, which is excellent in every respect. Furthermore, the performance has been captured in very pleasing sound. However, seasoned Bruckner watchers will have noted the playing time; by comparison with most recorded versions I know, Roth’s is easily the swiftest. Just for the sake of comparison, I looked out a few versions from my shelves, more or less at random. Karajan’s 1975 recording plays for 64:37 (review); Günter Wand’s live 1980 performance with the Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester is almost identical at 64:50 (review); and Bernard Haitink’s valedictory 2019 reading plays for 69:54 (review). Actually, a more relevant comparison might be Haitink’s earliest recording, the one he made way back in 1966 with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; the younger Haitink took 60:36 (review). These timings give a feeling for the relative swiftness of Roth’s performance. However, I decided not to make detailed comparisons with any of these versions, preferring to take Roth’s vision of the symphony on its own terms.

I found much to like in the first movement. Roth makes the music flow nicely, although he does allow the music space where needed, even if the tutti just before 10:00 is one instance where I felt the pace was a bit on the swift side. Though Roth’s approach is different to the traditional expansive view of Bruckner I didn’t sense impatience; more that he was taking a forward-moving, lyrical view of the music.

Doubts began to creep in, though, with the second movement. The marking is Adagio. Sehr feierlich und sehr langsam (very solemn and very slow). Initially, I found Roth’s pacing, which is not as broad as I’m accustomed to hearing, was refreshing. However, the second group (3:30) is definitely on the fleet side. As the movement developed, I couldn’t honestly say that what I was hearing really conformed to Bruckner’s tempo marking; increasingly, I missed a sense of solemnity and space. Fatally, I think Roth’s tempo selections undermine tension in the music; the performance sounds too relaxed. The main climax (14:13) is complete with cymbals but because the build-up to the climax has lacked the usual tension the moment of arrival really doesn’t register as powerfully as it should. I think that Roth offers an interesting alternative view of the movement but in the last analysis I was disappointed.

The scherzo goes well: the performance is dynamic. The finale is light on its feet and initially I liked the cheerful approach to this sunniest of Bruckner finales. However, the dotted rhythms came to seem almost snatched due to the swift speed and the full brass passages sounded jaunty. The final peroration (from 10:14) lacked grandeur.

François-Xavier Roth certainly presents a refreshing, individual view of this symphony and, as I’ve found he does with music by many other composers, his performance challenges my preconceptions. That’s both good and healthy. I don’t quite feel that he hits the mark, though. That said, other listeners may disagree, especially anyone who has hitherto found Bruckner to be stuffy. Personally, I prefer the approach of conductors like Haitink and Karajan who take the long view and offer a more expansive approach, allowing Bruckner’s long paragraphs the time to expand and grow. The difference between such conductors and Roth in this symphony is most keenly experienced in the Adagio.

Despite my reservations, I’m sufficiently curious that I shall be interested to hear the next instalment of Roth’s Bruckner cycle.

John Quinn

Previous review: Ralph Moore

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