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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 7 in E major (1885 version ed. Nowak) (1881-3)
Wiener Philharmoniker/Bernard Haitink
rec. live 30 August 2019, Großes Festspielhaus, Salzburg

Bernard Haitink has conducted this symphony scores of times over the last sixty years and made nearly a score of recordings, three with this same orchestra, always using the Nowak edition with the cymbal and triangle clash in the Adagio. We might therefore reasonably conclude that he both loves the work and has reasonably firm ideas born of vast experience about how it should go. I admit to not always having been Haitink’s greatest fan but I was very impressed by his live Sixth from 2017 with the BRSO, as were two MWI colleagues; this Seventh makes a fine sequel of even greater distinction.

This is a live recording marking both the conductor’s ninetieth birthday and his last performance at the Salzburg Festival. It is one of the longest in the catalogue, exceeding by a full ten minutes his 1966 recording on Philips with the Concertgebouw. That difference between a conductor’s earliest and latest work is hardly unusual; as conductors age they tend to become more expansive, but it is also in line with the trend for taking a more leisurely and reflective approach to Bruckner’s symphonies and is comparable to some classic recordings from Karajan, Chailly, Eichhorn and Giulini.

We hear applause both before and after the performance, the latter erupting rapturously only after a prolonged and decent interval, so anyone averse to its inclusion has plenty of time to turn it off. At the beginning, the audience brouhaha has hardly died down before Haitink launches into the broad, sweeping melody which begins the symphony. The sound of the VPO is breathtakingly rich and beautiful; indeed, the whole recording is exemplary – I was going to write “for a live event” but these days live recordings are often as immediate and beautifully balanced as studio productions and here the sheer depth of sound is extraordinary. Haitink’s direction exudes confidence and his shifts in tempo are ideally gauged with no abrupt gear changes. I love the way he applies rallentando in the pulsing build-up to the first, grand, brass chorale six and a half minutes in and despite the massiveness of the orchestral sound much of the playing is detailed and transparent, showcasing the virtuosity of the individual VPO instrumentalists. The upper strings gleam, the double basses growl and purr, the woodwind sing, the brass declaim triumphantly and the timpani thunder; this is stellar orchestral playing. The concluding bars are so overwhelming that the listener must doubt whether there will be sufficient reserves of power to sustain three more movements, yet the Adagio, Bruckner’s tribute to Wagner, is sublime. At its famous climax, rather than engineer a percussive explosion, Haitink creates a sustained, ringing paean, daringly elongating the note values and giving the timpani its head – stunning. The Scherzo is slower and more deliberate than most, a brooding behemoth, trampling all in its path; once again, the sonority of the VPO’s bass instruments enhances its sense of menace - and that heaviness makes the melody of the Trio sound less comforting than usual, entirely in keeping with Haitink’s overall conception of the symphony. The finale is as satisfying as the three preceding movements; energy levels are maintained and the VPO brass are simply monstrous. The inexorable progress towards the triumphant conclusion is riveting throughout until catharsis is complete.

I can imagine that some not wedded like me to the statelier mode of delivering Bruckner might wish for just a little more propulsion at certain points, but the magnificence of the sound and Haitink’s grasp of both structure within, and the interrelationship between, the movements makes this entirely convincing. This is typical of the glorious Indian summer of Haitink’s career and is now my favourite recording of this masterwork.

Ralph Moore
[This review commissioned by, and reproduced by kind permission of, The Bruckner Journal]

This performance is also available on Blu-ray video (review)

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