INKPOT#87 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: BRUCKNER Symphony No.7 (Haas). Vienna PO/Karajan (DG).
Symphony No.7 in E (ed. Robert Haas)Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
conducted by HERBERT VON KARAJAN
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON Karajan Gold 439 037-2
Karajan’s final recording. Recorded at Wien Musikverein, 1989.
by Roy Chan
Of all eminent German-Austrian musical masterpieces, those of Anton Bruckner (right) suffers perhaps the most from propagandised attacks, misunderstandings and distortions. Brucknerites defend their master symphonist by pointing out his distension of the symphonic form, his intensification of a poetic idea and the majesty and sublimity of his musical idioms. The anti-protagonists on the other hand proclaim Bruckner’s symphonic expansion uncontrolled inflation, his grandeur is only exaggeration and his poetry nothing but vague vulgarities. Were it not for the initialisation of regular performing of his more popular symphonies, like the Fourth and Seventh, by some of his contemporary fellow colleagues and students, the wonderful oeuvre of Bruckner’s symphonic output might never be discovered.
When Richard Wagner died in 1883, the news of his death hovered over the entire Vienna like an impenetrable fog. No one, be him from the pro- or anti-Wagnerian camp was unaffected by it, but especially Bruckner who was then working on his Seventh Symphony. In a letter he wrote to Felix Mottl the great conductor just before the death of Wagner, he disclosed the fateful premonition he had received: “I felt very sad, for the thought of the Master would soon die had occurred to me, and at that moment the C# minor theme of the Adagio came to me.” And that was the same Bruckner who would wait for hours outside Wagner’s residency just to glimpse and greet the aged composer. In retrospect, the death of Wagner was not unlike the deprivation of Bruckner’s Veni creator Spiritus.
The Seventh Symphony, first performed in late December 1884, was Bruckner’s first blockbuster, and one which was to at last gain him his much deserved fame and recognition in the snobbish 19th century Vienna. According to contemporary concert reports, the ovation at the end of the premiere performance (incidentally, conducted by Arthur Nikisch the great conductor in the celebrated Leipzig Gewandhaus) lasted a full quarter of an hour. The now recognized (albeit belatedly) master symphonist was called to the stage countless times by the prolonged cheers and applause of an enthusiastic audience.
One of the critics who was present spoke of this event: “One could see from the trembling of his lips and the sparkling moisture in his eyes how difficult it was for the old gentleman to suppress his deep emotion. His homely but honest countenance beamed with a warm inner happiness such as can appear only on the face of one who is too goodhearted to succumb to bitterness even under the pressure of most disheartening circumstances. Having heard his work and now seeing him in person we asked ourselves in amazement “How is it possible that you could remain so long unknown to us?” After decades of struggles and hard work, Anton Bruckner was at last free to deliver his message to all human beings.
There exist many impressive performances of this work on record, notably those by such past veteran German conductors like Furtwängler, Klemperer, Jochum, Walter, Knappertsbusch and Karajan. Personally, I regard Furtwängler the greatest Bruckner conductor ever lived. One has only to check out those wartime recordings to certify that – crisp, searing, whirling, always on the edge and in white-hot intensity. Many conductors treat Bruckner’s symphonies as some kind of sonic cathedral for its majesty, massiveness, spirituality and beauty. There are those who prefer to treat them like molten lava – limpid and flowing. Furtwängler managed to achieve both and, in my opinion, so does Karajan in this recording, his last one which I shall go into greater detail.
First I would like to ensure readers that the sound quality of this recording is at demonstration level, which harbours such clarity and depth that it simply merits a listen, to say the least. Characteristically, the playing of the VPO shimmers with great flair and commitment, while the loudest fortissimo is created with such prowess and great ease that I am convinced of this orchestra’s stature as THE Bruckner orchestra.
The opening passage of the first movement is a good example. One just gets sweeps along by the gorgeous and golden rich full tone of those Viennese strings. Such articulation, weight and aesthete! The all-embracing astoundingly even acoustics of the Wien Musikverein, which works particularly well for Bruckner, is a miracle. But more to the point is the exemplary realisation of the conception of the work.
Listen to the way Karajan phrases the hush opening of the first movement. Soft, dolce, yet insistent and positively brimming with life, like watching a flower in blossom – from stillness to glory (though unfortunately without the mystery found in his 1971 Berlin account now reissued on EMI’s Karajan Edition). Especially admirable is the consistent maintaining and accumulating of concentration and tension, which culminates at the various climaxes – so that their occurences just seem so much more magnificent and significant than other performances. The well known “Karajan” sound works wonderfully here with its sleek, luxurious yet transparent and lofty beautiful attacks, which levitates the vast Brucknerian soundscape to an elevated magical sphere.
The solemn second movement is as much an elegy for Wagner as it is for Bruckner (maybe even for Karajan himself!), though it is anything but pensive. Life affirmation and illuminating grandeur rule the day here. The exquisite second subject is played with mesmerizing tenderness, while ridden with nuances and glowing affections.
While the Scherzo is a totally exciting affair, full of awe-inspiring impacts and with much of the swirling moody atmosphere projected far and wide, it is the finale that grabs my attention. I always feel that the fourth movement subtly inferior to its precedents. My reason is not so much the comparatively diminutive dimensions of the structure nor lesser wealth of thematic material, as the seemingly lack of highly internalized flow of coherence and spiritual growth which one finds in the earlier movements that make them such convincing arguments.
Once again it is Karajan’s compelling architectural farsightedness that “glues” and holds the sonic blocks together which provides the remedy, though some might find his pacing somewhat deliberate. The finale assumes monumental proportions as Karajan wields the interfaces of those epic blocks of sound together. The carpet of warm and weighty string tone works beautifully, supporting the forthcoming tides of climaxes before reaching the ultimate culmination point, bringing the entire sixty-minutesome masterpiece to its triumphant conclusion.
One last note: when Karajan made this recording in April 1989, he had less than three months to live (he died on 16 July that year). Karajan’s goal for his entire career had been to strive to attain perfection for every single recording he made, sonically and performance wise. This recording in my opinion is, in a nutshell, a very good representation of that aim. Thereby I urge every Brucknerites, whether a fan of Karajan or not to at least give this performance a listen, for it is not only an important historical document, but also his final testament and a tribute to the art of Karajan, the conductor and the man.
Inserted CD booklet of reviewed recordingChord and Discord – Journal of the Bruckner Society of America
609: 1.12.1999 Roy Chan
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