CD Review: Bruckner: Symphony No 7 (ed Novak)

Bruckner: Symphony No 7, WAB 107
Deutsche Grammophon Recording (online versions: mp3 and FLAC)
Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim
This is a live recording made in the Berlin Philharmonie in June 2010 - quite why its taken so long to emerge is a mystery.
Barenboim has recorded this symphony twice before in audio: a Chicago Symphony Orchestra reading (from March 1979)has recently been re-released at budget price by DG and there is a Teldec recording with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (from Feb 1992).  On DVD there is a performance with the Dresden Staatskapelle (July 2008).
Here are the movements timings for the Berlin Staatskapelle recording followed by actual timings for Berlin Phil and Chicago Symphony
1. Allegro moderato 20:20 - 21:38 - 20:20
2. Adagio. Sehr feierlich und sehr langsam 21:19 - 24:41 - 22:47
3. Scherzo. Sehr schnell – 
Trio. Etwas langsamer 10:12 - 10:14 - 10:21
4. Finale. Bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell 13:03 - 13:23 - 12:30
The timings don’t tell you much about the freedom of tempo Barenboim uses within a movement - many wouldn’t argue with it - though some will find it more disconcerting at first.  He is more liberal than Jochum and Furtwangler and to that extent is at an extreme end of Bruckner interpretation I think.  But it pays dividends and holds together as a performance.  One can hardly blame the conductor when faced with the gorgeous sound of the Berlin Philharmonic for added two minutes to his reading of the Adagio.
The new DG recording generously puts plenty of time between movements and captures the applause at the end of the work.  The audience are present throughout though never intrusive.  It is in some ways comforting to hear the rustle and murmur between movements.
For many Brucknerians the topic of which edition is used is often paramount in recordings and performances of symphonies - less so for the Seventh.  Here it's Leopold Nowak's edition and others have used the original Guttmann and Haas in about equal measure in recordings.  The key bone of contention for many may be whether we think the additional cymbals and triangle are original Bruckner.  What is more ear-catching is that Barenboim adds a timpani crescendo in the bar prior to the Adagio’s culmination in both the Chicago and Staatskapelle performances.

Barenboim uses them as Nowak instructs - but this is less the point for me than how their presence adds to or detracts from the performance as a whole.
The Berlin Staatskapelle is an old orchestra (founded in 1570) and is associated with an opera house, in this case the Berlin State Opera Unter Den Linden. Barenboim has been active in the opera house and with the orchestra for many years and though the orchestra hasn't the rich sheen to its sound that Staatskapelle Dresden and Leipzig Gewandhaus boast or the full body of its neighbour the Berlin Philharmonic - it does have a lovely tone and transparency which works better in Bruckner than I would have anticipated.  One thing also to mention is that this recording came from a live performance in a week long Bruckner cycle performed in June 2010.  The publicity material speaks of a 13 minute applause for this performance (which thankfully didn’t find its way onto the download).  There is an air of rapt attention from an almost silent audience which adds to the appreciation of the performance as a whole.  
This is a beautiful performance of a much loved symphony that is difficult to bring off on record or in concert.  As a piece of music (and not unlike the Eroica Symphony) it is unbalanced - two long intricate and spellbinding movements unfold slowly in exposition if not in pace.  But these are followed by two short movements the last of which has to bring the whole symphony together.  Its a big ask when the material is so meticulously set out by the composer as to allow little elaboration.
Barenboim’s progress in the exposition of the work is meticulous: two things strike me - first his attention to detail - incidental felicities are tastefully revealed and he is very subtle in matters of tempo and second he doesn’t always go for the obvious dramatic gesture.  In recent times so many anonymous Bruckner recordings and performances have been hailed as glorious when they reveal so little, but Barenboim reveals so much - and he is, perhaps, with Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, one of the finest exponents of Bruckner before the public.  Most of all there is a deep respect for the orchestral colour which goes from delicate woodwind solos to deep brass led pedal notes, beautifully shaped but never held up admiringly to the light as objet de virtue.  One episode flows into another without a pause of self-congratulation. 
UPDATE: This same combination gave Bruckner’s Eighth symphony in London recently and confirmed this combination of flexibility and attention to detail.  The performance was admirable though not as showily triumphant as conductors of previous generations.  It was a reading which managed to convince me of more merits to the Nowak edition of the work than others have managed - which is a feat in itself given my antipathy. This is deeper Bruckner - worthy of study and reflection - we shouldn't expect to drink it in one gulp.
Concluding I would say that if this recording is the sole commercial offering from DG by this orchestra and conductor of their current cycle then it would be sad.  I would like to hear them in Symphony Nos 1, 6 and 9 at least.  If the full cycle is to be recorded in Vienna one hopes all the remaining symphonies can be brought out to make a set.
As it stands, it moves us on from anodyne attempts to replicate older interpretations by a generation of younger conductors who have been looking for ways of spicing Bruckner up.  I’d say to Vänskä, Nott, Young and others - the way to spice up Bruckner is not by the presentation of befuddled “original” editions.  Authenticity isn’t everything and sometimes it isn’t even anything.  Barenboim is a master of the keyboard and his Bruckner comes with an organist’s ear for sonority, but also the virtuoso’s ear for improvisation - something at which, after all Bruckner excelled. Paying greater attention to these aspects has brought us new clearer, cleaner but more interesting Bruckner - I’m grateful for that.

I’d like to hear some more please DG.  


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