Vienna Symphony Orchestra (Kreizberg) - Bruckner: Symphony No.7 in E major

Vienna Symphony Orchestra (Kreizberg) – ‘Bruckner: Symphony No.7 in E major’ An SACD review by Mark Jordan

The nasty Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick infamously described Bruckner’s ‘Symphony No. 7 in E major’ as “a symphonic boa constrictor” after its first Vienna performance in 1884, but even he had to begrudgingly note in his review that the audience seemed very pleased with the work. In fact, their ovation lasted for forty-five minutes, giving the shy bumpkin Bruckner his first taste of success at the tender young age of sixty, after a lifetime of laboring in relative obscurity. In retrospect, it seems hard to imagine what efforts Hanslick must have gone to in order not to like this expansive, sincere, and often quite genial work. What the critic couldn’t (or wouldn’t) come to terms with was Bruckner’s expansion of traditional symphonic structure allowing for structures much more massive than earlier classical symphonies. His typical sonata form structure is almost like traditional sonata form squared, with each subsection having its own contrasting subsections. Bruckner combined this ingenuity with the sound world of Baroque and Renaissance polyphony, which he then “souped up” with a Wagnerian approach to harmonic flexibility. The resultant brew is unique to Bruckner, and it is no wonder that many early listeners became hopelessly lost along the way. The ‘Seventh’, however, is Bruckner’s least wayward symphonic adventure, and most patient listeners will find themselves eventually swept up by the composer’s heartfelt invention.

Yakov Kreizberg brings us a new hybrid CD/SACD on the Pentatone label, serving well to remind the world that the Vienna Philharmonic is not the only great orchestra in Vienna. In the past, the Vienna Symphony often stood as the Philharmonic’s poor cousin, underfunded and understaffed, but in recent years the internationally expanding pool of quality players has allowed the Symphony to compete on an international level, and they acquit themselves well here under their frequent guest conductor, suffering only an occasional harshness in the upper strings or in the brass at full volume, neither of which is uncharacteristic of the acoustics in Vienna’s Konzerthaus, where this recording was made live in concert. Recordings from the last decade or two show that the top handful of orchestras in the world have proceeded to a level of almost unearthly sheen which serves the lofty side of Bruckner well, but doesn’t capture the composer’s earthy roots in the north Austrian countryside adequately. Fortunately, the Vienna Symphony’s sound hasn’t taken on the gloss of, say, the Berlin Philharmonic or the San Francisco Symphony, and that helps keep its Bruckner earthy and rich. The only high-gloss ensemble to have kept the piece similarly grounded was the Cleveland Orchestra in Christoph von Dohnányi’s admirable Decca recording from the mid-1990’s.

Kreizberg approaches the work from a fairly traditional point of view, often incorporating the possibly spurious tempo tweaks published in the Nowak edition of the score. Some have opined that those penciled-in adjustments to the pace were actually the personal performance notes by the first conductor, Artur Nikisch, but many conductors have made use of them over the years, not least of all the esteemed Otto Klemperer. Listeners preferring less give-and-take may gravitate toward the aforementioned Dohnányi recording, the live Giulini performance recently released in the BBC Legends series, or even to the supremely lyrical account from Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Vienna Philharmonic on Teldec (now Warner), though for a grand, magisterial approach, Herbert von Karajan remains spellbinding in both his EMI recording from 1970 and 1971 with the Berlin Philharmonic as well as in the late Deutsche Grammophon remake with the Vienna Philharmonic from near the end of his life.

Kreizberg opts for a broad first movement, similar to the pace of Daniel Barenboim’s Teldec recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, although without quite so much self-conscious grandeur. He is also within seconds of Karajan’s time in the EMI recording, without the Velvety voluptuousness that makes Karajan’s seem slower than it really is. Kreizberg does reduce his speed for the closing pages of the movement, a place where Giulini and Harnoncourt conversely surge forward passionately. Kreizberg’s broadening gives the closing pages more of a sunset luster than the sort of afternoon brightness which occurs in the more flowing performances, but that helps set the stage effectively for the somber “Adagio” to follow, where Kreizberg is broad without going to the extreme dramatics of Jochum’s epic accounts.

Kreizberg also opts to include the controversial cymbal crash and triangle roll at the peak of the slow movement. For those who don’t know the story, this was not originally included in Bruckner’s scoring of this climax. It appears as a pasted in flap of paper in the original manuscript, adding in these two instruments for that climax only – they appear nowhere else in the symphony. The score was premiered and published that way (along with the spurious Nikisch tempo notes, indicating that he might also be the source of this percussive gilding). The original flap of paper was later penciled over in what most experts believe to be Bruckner’s handwriting, “nicht gelt,” Viennese dialect for “not valid.” That seems to make it pretty clear, though most conductors in fact use the crash. Ultimately, if the performance has enough emotion and nobility, even these glitzy instruments are sanctified by the mood, so I have never greatly minded the crash, and Kreizberg is suitably tasteful here in his deployment of it. Those wanting to go without it will find the offending shimmer deleted in the performances of Walter, Dohnanyi, Tintner, Sanderling and Harnoncourt, among others. Karajan, Giulini, Jochum, Barenboim, Klemperer, Skrowaczewski, Sinopoli, and Rattle are among those who keep it.

The peak of Kreizberg’s performance is the perfectly judged scherzo, which finds buoyancy and wit as well as excitement and power. Kreizberg welcomely brings out the backing trombone lines at one moment of pause before the roiling notes churn off in a new direction. This happens at bar 137 of the ‘Scherzo’ and can also be heard in the Bruno Walter recording from 1961 at 1:40 into the movement, plus again later when the first section repeats after the trio. To get this lovely detail, the conductor must have the alto and tenor trombones dovetail their parts so that the alternately emphasized notes combine together to form a fragrant fragment of melody for just a couple of measures. Few conductors find this hidden blossom (in fact, I can only think of Walter and Giulini before this), and it is a joy to find Kreizberg bringing it out here (at 1:44), although he doesn’t shape it as much as Walter or Giulini.

Kreizberg’s finale is the least successful of the four movements, and that is directly related to the Nikisch tempo adjustments, which become fussy, establishing a different tempo for every theme, even for every phrase ending in the main theme. I would venture to say that the themes here are so widely differing in character, that additional tempo distinctions are largely superfluous. They only serve to make Bruckner’s intentionally shortest finale seem overlong. Bruckner was shrewd in his planning here, realizing that the emotional turning-point of the symphony came much earlier, in the “Adagio,” and that additional battles here must be of a smaller, less profound nature. Similar problems compromise the last movement in Klemperer’s EMI recording, Riccardo Chailly’s spacious Decca recording, and Giuseppe Sinopoli’s otherwise admirably straightforward rendition with the Staatskapelle Dresden on Deutsche Grammophon. Even the fleet-footed Harnoncourt is detoured by phrase-fussing in the finale. The more straightforward approach of Dohnányi, Giulini, or Walter pays dividends here.

Incidentally, for what it’s worth, Harnoncourt sets no speed records in any of the four movements: Early recordings by Horenstein and Kabasta were faster in the first movement, Walter was faster in the slow movement, Steinberg was faster in the scherzo, and Ormandy was faster in the finale. The significant thing, instead, is that Harnoncourt marries flowing tempos with a sleek and lyrical orchestral sound, thus moving the symphony out of the larger-than-life epic category and making it more intimate. Only a minute and a half slower than Harnoncourt is the surprisingly agile performance from Carlo Maria Giulini and the Philharmonia Orchestra that appeared recently in the BBC Legends series. Indeed, Giulini’s first two movements are even swifter than Harnoncourt’s, unleashing tremendous bursts of energy at the end of the first movement as well as at the climax of the slow movement. This release should not be confused with Giulini’s Deutsche Grammophon studio recording, however. The DG recording is only from a few years later, but those years (and the lack of a live, adrenaline-fueling audience) add several minutes to the timing. Even at his most contemplative, though, Giulini steers a course both masterful and lyrical through Bruckner’s ‘Seventh’. Particularly sage is Giulini’s attention to the length of notes in the opening theme of the finale. When conductors take a quick tempo in the finale, players have a tendency to start clipping the longer notes short in order to be ready for the next dotted rhythm. Giulini makes sure the strings don’t short-change the longer notes, thus keeping the theme lithe without letting it become jumpy and nervous.

This Pentatone disc is a 5.0 multichannel Direct Stream Digital (DSD) recording that actually comes from a live concert in Vienna’s Konzerthaus. Or at least parts of it do. It is impossible to tell how much “backup” material was used from pre-concert rehearsals or post-concert patching sessions, which is standard procedure for a live recording these days. Whatever the case, I did not find myself noticing any changing in the acoustic properties of the space throughout the performance, so any edits that were made were performed subtly and imperceptibly by the team at Polyhymnia. I only rated the sound at 80% because that’s how the sound compares against the finest multichannel recordings currently on the market. Considering, 1) That this was a live concert, and 2) That Vienna’s Konzerthaus is not one of the world’s great concert halls, this recording might well be as fine a fidelity as we’re likely to hear from it. Admittedly, this disc has the finest sound I’ve ever heard from a Konzerthaus recording, live or otherwise. That said, the hall itself (also used years ago for the live concert film of Leonard Bernstein conducting Mahler’s ‘First’ with the Vienna Philharmonic, recently brought out by DG in DVD-Video format, with the same acoustic problems) has a tendency to make highs a bit clangorous and shrill, while losing detail in the midrange when the whole orchestra plays. This last quirk leaves the woodwinds of the Vienna Symphony slightly veiled in tutti passages, although that sort of “blending” of the orchestral sound is typical of the traditional “Middle European” approach which Kreizberg takes, so it doesn’t amount to a serious flaw here.

The hall also does not feature a great deal of reverberation, especially with a full audience in place, but the multichannel recording here still makes an enormous difference in the presence of the sound. The redbook CD layer is handsome enough, well-balanced, with judiciously placed pickups. The stereo layer of the SACD, however, begins to unravel the layers of sound, which are in a flat plane in the regular layer. Moving to SACD and taking advantage of the extra resolution, one can begin to hear “around” the sounds, resolving them to their stage locations and instrumental sections. But when the surround layer is tapped, the sounds take on the shape of the hall right in front of – not to mention, all around – one’s ears. Since the symphonies of Bruckner have often been described as “cathedrals in sound,” this three-dimensional quality is an important and welcome feature of Pentatone’s recording. Though there is not any excessive back-bounce from the surround channels, there is a sense of being in the same space as the performers which quickens the pulse and tickles the ears.

Ultimately, this recording holds its own against many august rivals in the sub-category of “grand Bruckner.” And it certainly whets one’s appetite to hear more of the work of Yakov Kreizberg. I would consider this better than many other Bruckner ‘Seventh’s’ I listened to for comparison. This is better than the nostalgic but slack Kurt Sanderling recording on Hänssler, the first, undercharacterized Bernard Haitink recording on Philips, the William Steinberg LP on ABC from the mid-1960’s, Giuseppe Sinopoli’s poised but overbright performance on DG, Otto Klemperer’s stiff rendition on EMI, and far, far better than the Shatneresque huffing and puffing of Sir Simon Rattle’s EMI recording with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra from just a few years back. But for a benchmark version, I would lean more toward the lyricism and lithe energy of the live recordings by Giulini and Harnoncourt (BBC Legends and Teldec, respectively), or for Apollonian poise and more beautiful recorded sound, the Cleveland recording by Dohnányi on Decca. Otherwise, special joys are to be found in the bewitching Karajan (EMI or DG), the sumptuous Barenboim (Teldec), the dark Skrowaczewski (Arte Nova, flawed only by overly-resonant trumpets), the dramatic Jochum (DG or EMI), and the sage-like Böhm (DG), and the valedictory Tintner (Naxos). In the historical category, Furtwängler remains king, though interesting insights can also be found in monophonic recordings from Sergiu Celibidache and George Szell. I know of no superior competitors to Kreizberg on Super Audio Compact Disc, so it stands recommended.