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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)  
Symphony No. 7 in E major (1881-3)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Stanisław Skrowaczewski
rec. live, 24 October 2012, Royal Festival Hall, London. DDD

Preparing to review this new recording, I dipped into half a dozen others on my shelves, which proved to be an experience both gratifying and slightly bemusing. It confirmed my somewhat heretical conviction that if you put a good conductor in front of a first class orchestra to conduct a Bruckner symphony, you will almost invariably end up with a more than satisfactory result.
Oddly enough, all the preferred versions I listened to were live apart from the 1970-71 Karajan studio recording - not usually the case with standard repertoire symphonies. In truth, I could hardly put a Rizla paper between them and this live LPO issue adds yet another to the many fine recordings available. That’s not much use to anyone looking for one, firm recommendation; on the other hand it also suggests that you cannot go wrong with any of the most celebrated recordings of this most approachable and popular of Bruckner’s symphonies.
As was the case with me, the Seventh is often the gateway to an appreciation of this composer and it took me many years before I appreciated the truth of Skrowaczewski’s assertion that “Bruckner is one of the greatest composers … another Mozart: his music is magical … its message speaks about the infinite, transcendental cosmos, God, timelessness, love and tragedy.”
So does this live performance live up to that ambitious billing? The veteran Skrowaczewski had just turned 89 at the time of this concert last October in the Festival Hall and is supposedly currently “the world’s oldest working major conductor”; no doubt someone can contradict that. There is certainly no indication of waning powers here and every proof of his expertise as a Brucknerian. Not one for pulling tempi about, he conducts a firm, steady, controlled account that flows and breathes naturally. At nearly seventy minutes, it is closest in style, timings and conception to Karajan’s studio recording although the analogue sound of the latter is rather muddy and brittle - however, that is on my CD and I believe a re-mastered version is now finally available. Quite the reverse is true here: the sound is brightly lit and rather too close, robbing the music of much of the numinous quality the score demands. The opening bars lack the hushed mystery of Karajan or the aureate, Wagnerian glow of Knappertsbusch in his astonishing live recording from 1949 with the VPO.
The opening of the Adagio shares a disadvantage also found in that Knappertsbusch recording, being marred by audience coughing and the previously mentioned closeness of the recording, which makes the violas sound a little wiry. Beautifully played as it is, it does not quite achieve the perfection of Giulini’s account with the BPO in 1985 or Sanderling’s Stuttgart performance in 1999, although the four Wagner tubas are wonderful. Skrowaczewski presumably borrows from the Nowak edition in his deployment of cymbals and triangle at the climax of this movement; otherwise, we are not told whether the Nowak or Haas edition, or a combination thereof, is being used, though editorial issues in the Seventh are the least contentious of all the symphonies.
Sanderling also takes a more whimsical and Mahlerian approach to the Scherzo, whereas Skrowaczewski eschews both this and the more deliberately powerful and imposing effect achieved by Karajan and Giulini, aiming instead for a nervier and more driven presentation of the hectic triple-time theme.
His treatment of the galumphing first subject in the Finale with its wide, leaping, octave intervals contrasts neatly with the smooth yearning of the second subject and is closest here to Knappertsbusch’s conception. The biggest relative disappointment for me in this recording is right at the end: Skrowaczewski is a little careful and does not emulate the climactic glory that Karajan and Schaller generate - although the latter undoubtedly has the advantage of the churchy acoustic afforded by his recording location, the Abteikirche at the Ebrach Festival. Sanderling runs them close for majesty but his Stuttgart strings suffer from some scrappy tuning.
Ultimately, this remains a very fine performance in sound which is slightly too forensic and for all its virtues does not quite match the finest half a dozen by the likes of Karajan, Giulini, Sanderling and Schaller. I was surprised to conclude that for all that I love those versions, the one which continues to absorb me most is the 1949 recording by Hans Knappertsbusch. It is in remarkable sound for its vintage, but Kna is decidedly more interventionist than is the norm and the venerable sound rules it out as a prime candidate. There are safer options and despite my minor reservations, anyone acquiring this new budget recording is unlikely to be disappointed.
Ralph Moore 

Masterwork Index: Bruckner 7