Bruckner: Symphony No. 7 in E

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

LABELS: Hanssler
WORKS: Symphony No. 7 in E
PERFORMER: Stuttgart SWR SO/Kurt Sanderling
Kurt Sanderling’s Bruckner Seventh has plenty of admirable qualities: fine, unexaggerated phrasing, deep, rounded string tone, a solid brass section, architectural grandeur… So why do I dread the thought of it falling into enemy hands? Perhaps because the underlying pulse is so heavy and regular, like a royal procession in slow motion. At first it’s impressive, but after a while the measured earnestness, the lack of lightness in the delivery from movement to movement strains the patience. Hearing Hans Vonk immediately after Sanderling was surprisingly refreshing. It isn’t just that his performance is shorter and generally faster; there’s a subtle ebb and flow of tempo (even the accelerando in the first-movement coda convinces), and a sense of underlying purpose – though this is never achieved by pushing the music – which adds vitality to the expression. This is a Bruckner who sings and even dances. Admittedly the St Louis Symphony is a less refined instrument than the SWR Symphony Orchestra under Sanderling – woodwind tone can be a bit acid, and the Wagner tubas’ elegy in the Adagio is marred by coarse vibrato; but this is a performance that keeps hold of the attention. Ultimately I prefer Günter Wand and the Berlin Philharmonic, another ‘live’ recording, which has all Sanderling’s strengths but with a lighter touch, more supple expression and a surer sense of purpose. The Vonk version, though, is a valuable corrective to the modern tendency to concentrate too much on architecture and beauty of sound in Bruckner at the expense of human expression, and to equate profundity with slowness. Incidentally, Sanderling uses the less familiar Haas version of the score, which means no cymbal clash in the Adagio – hardly a selling point, though he does demonstrate convincingly that the music doesn’t need it. Stephen Johnson