Bruckner: Symphony No. 7

COMPOSERS: Bruckner
LABELS: Decca
WORKS: Symphony No. 7
PERFORMER: Berlin RSO/Riccardo Chailly
CATALOGUE NO: 466 574-2 Reissue (1985)
Riccardo Chailly’s Bruckner Seven has plenty to recommend it. The orchestral playing is sumptuous, and Chailly’s understanding of Bruckner’s

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structural thinking is profound: he lets the music unfold at an unhurried pace, gives the melodies plenty of time to breathe and expand, but there’s always a sense of underlying movement, like a deep, slow river. All the same, I’ve heard more exciting, moving performances from Chailly in the concert hall – by contrast this sounds just a little detached.

That impression is enhanced when you put Chailly’s Seventh beside any of the Bruckner performances in the DG Celibidache set. Quite simply these are some of the most stirring Bruckner interpretations on disc. Which is not to say there aren’t technical drawbacks. The recordings (all ‘live’ and apparently without edits) have a rough-hewn quality, the playing of the Stuttgart RSO isn’t exactly polished either, and from time to time Celibidache’s energetic foot-stamping obtrudes as he urges the orchestra on to even greater heights of intensity. There are a few minor musical weirdnesses as well: a clarinet phrase at the opening of No. 8 is scrambled and transferred to a bassoon, and the timpanist seems to suffer from a minor brainstorm at the climax of the Adagio of No. 7.

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And yet, in spite of all this, the performances are gripping. The first movement of the Eighth Symphony has a grand, tragic momentum – the tempo just right, not fatally slow. While I’ve every admiration for the way Karajan controls the slow pace in his Vienna Philharmonic recording, Celibidache’s measured but more animated tempo makes greater sense – the rhythms never clog. The Adagio of the Eighth is another compelling tragic statement, only here it isn’t the grandeur so much as the very human pathos which holds the ear. That urgent, sometimes anguished personal tone is still more evident in the Ninth Symphony. Again comparing with Karajan (the 1976 BPO recording), Celibidache has all the former’s architectural strength, but with greater suppleness and much more warmth of feeling. As an extra, there are two extracts from Celibidache’s rehearsal sessions. You can pick up a great deal even if you don’t understand German. A must for Brucknerians, and a challenge for sceptics.