Symphony No. 7 in E major (1881-1883) (1885, ed. Haas) [90:00]
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sergiu Celibidache
rec. live, 31 March-1 April 1992, Schauspielhaus, Berlin
Documentary: The Triumphant Return [54:00]
Directors: Rodney Greenberg (concert), Wolfgang Becker (documentary)
Picture: 16:9, 1080i Full HD. Documentary: 4:3
Sound: PCM Stereo only
Subtitles: German, English, Japanese
Region: all (worldwide)
[90:00 + 54:00]
Celibidache’s near legendary Bruckner recordings have
a chequered history; Deutsche Grammophon’s Stockholm and
Stuttgart cycle from the 1960s and 1970s was quite widely available,
but Sony’s Munich videos ran into legal problems and were
recalled soon after their release on LaserDisc and VHS. As for
the later - audio-only - Munich recordings, these are now available
in a reasonably priced EMI box. Delving into the background
to this 1992 Berlin Seventh I was surprised to find several
CD and DVD issues from obscure - presumably ‘pirate’
- labels; Sony also released this on LD and VHS.
As with the Munich Philharmonic Eighth, I first encountered
Celibidache’s Seventh - the live recording from Tokyo
- while channel-hopping late one night; I may not have heard
it all, but I came away from this transfiguring event a convert.
Celi’s expansive - some would say sprawling - way with
both scores defies musical logic; at these speeds they really
ought to crash and burn, and yet they have a lift and loftiness
I’ve not encountered anywhere else. If that Tokyo Seventh
could take wing at all, then this Berlin one would surely soar.
There’s a history behind this concert, outlined in the
accompanying documentary. I’ll comment on that after the
performance, as there are some technical issues that need to
be aired right away. This concert was filmed in 4:3, the roughly
square picture we remember from our CRT days, but Euroarts have
decided to mimic widescreen - 16:9 - by masking the picture
at top and bottom. I doubt anyone with even a modicum of interest
in this event would welcome the change, as it results in heads
being ‘chopped off’. Thankfully the documentary
has been left in its original format, and I suppose we must
be grateful no attempt was made to synthesise a surround audio
mix as well.
Then there’s the question of performing editions. Bruckner’s
1883 score only exists as an amended autograph; Gutmann’s
1885 score was thought to include unauthorised alterations by
the conductor Artur Nikisch and others. The Haas edition of
1944, which uses some of the original - albeit compromised -
1883 score, is a valiant attempt to get back to the composer’s
first thoughts. That said, he omits the cymbals, triangle and
timps from the Adagio, something that Celi - who’s wedded
to Haas in this symphony - reinstates.
Faith is an unfashionable subject in this secular age, yet it’s
almost impossible to hear this music without being keenly aware
of this composer’s abiding humility. From the simple surrender
of those opening bars to the charm at its dancing heart and
the unfurling grandeur of its close this Allegro is truly divine.
Celi is measured but not rhetorical, and the music is allowed
to move and breathe in the most natural way. The all-important
blend and balance that creates those echt-Brucknerian
sonorities is there too; what a noble vintage compared with
the acidulous plonk of Franz Welser-Möst’s recent
Bruckner Eighth (review).
The HD picture - upgraded from the standard-def original - is
pretty sharp and the colours are true. More important the sound
has a penetrating warmth that ravishes the ear and batters the
heart. The horns and brass are especially well caught, and there’s
some wonderful flute playing too. Günter Wand’s live
Berlin account for RCA - recorded in 1999 - has similar amplitude
but it has harder edges and more thrust; by contrast, Celibidache
finds a degree of inwardness and vulnerability here that’s
deeply affecting. And in the movement’s final, multilayered
peroration - where the music ‘gathers to a greatness’,
as Hopkins would have it - Celi is sans pareil.
The Berliners surpass themselves too, playing with a commitment
and passion that’s rare these days. There’s a lyrical
intensity and singing line in this Adagio that will take your
breath away, and those dark, plangent brass chorales would make
the angels weep. At times this band sounds like a giant chamber
group; they’re alive to the subtleties of internal balance
and move seamlessly from one long-breathed phrase to the next.
It really is a wonder to behold, with every strand of this great
score laid bare in the most convincing and organic way. It’s
a long movement, and there is a hint of longueurs towards
the end, where even the camera’s eye is tempted to rove
Really, that’s a small price to pay for music-making of
this calibre, aided and abetted by sound of astonishing range
and fidelity. Indeed, the sonics here are among the very best
I’ve encountered on Blu-ray, and they put some recent
discs to shame. Every timbre is most faithfully rendered, each
fragment heard without recourse to the kind of audio trickery
that mars so many filmed concerts. Rodney Greenberg’s
direction is invariably discreet and well-informed; in fact
it’s a model of its kind, with only the compromised framing
a reminder of that dubious decision to go wide.
The tally-hoing trumpets and canter of the Scherzo are nicely
done. Remarkably, Celi still looks as fresh as an alpine flower,
although the orchestra - the brass especially - do sound a little
tired. And not even this gifted maestro can hide the joints
and seams of the Finale, which so often makes me think of a
revivalist preacher entangled in his own fiery rhetoric. That
said, this is still a noble, stirring Seventh, and I doubt we’ll
hear its like any time soon. Given the prolonged applause and
heartfelt cheers I’d say the audience agrees.
I usually have to force myself to watch these ‘bonus tracks’,
but this hour-long feature by Wolfgang Becker is more illuminating
than most. It dips into Celi’s career with the orchestra
after the war and hints at the politics that separated them
in the 1950s. The archive footage shows a young man of flamboyance
and gypsy good looks who also had quite a temper. Much of Becker’s
film is dedicated to conversations with older members of the
band and rehearsal clips for the Berlin Seventh.
It’s a measure of this conductor’s forensic understanding
of the score - not to mention the Berliners’ collective
skill - that this music can be so carefully picked apart and
reassembled with such precise and astonishing results. There’s
little sign of ill temper here, except for parade-ground barks
of ‘Firsts!’ and ‘Seconds!’, with many
images of an ageing maestro prone to gentle philosophising.
In that sense this is a telling - and affectionate - portrait
of a man in his twilight years, yet still possessed of a riveting
intellect and powerful podium presence. Now if only all ‘extras’
were this interesting.
A uniquely satisfying Seventh; a must for all Brucknerians.
see also review of DVD release by John
Masterwork Index: Bruckner