Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphony No. 7
Daniel Barenboim, cond; Staatskapelle Berlin
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4790320 (67:28) Live: Philharmonie, Berlin 6/2010
This Bruckner Seventh is quite simply the most beautiful, organic and fluid I have ever heard, a Wagnerian journey in seamless melody so intuitively warm as to make one ponder anew the human meaning of Bruckner. For some years now I have experienced a growing affinity for the sound of the Berlin Staatskapelle, first under Otmar Suitner, and now led by Daniel Barenboim.
There is a golden old-world quality to its playing that goes beyond the international virtuosity of the BPO and straight to the heart of the German repertory. For that reason, hearing it perform in the Philharmonie is a revelation. The brass is just as heavy as that of the BPO—but never blares. The strings, even more than Karajan’s—and certainly more than Rattle’s—seem to come out of nowhere, float the listener on his way, and disappear to nowhere. But they carry Berlin-worthy weight. And the violas and celli perform natural feats of portamento Karajan would never have dared. This is the most swivelly/swervy string playing I have ever heard...anywhere. I doubt the strings in Furtwängler’s day sounded more authentic than this.
As the quite wonderful notes by Peter Uehling point out, Barenboim has been building the sound of this orchestra in recent seasons by performing complete symphonic cycles. It certainly shows. Almost any orchestra can pull off Bruckner as a clacking “monolith monster,” without having phrases echo and answer each other. And sometimes one can “fake the past” with awkward portamentos slapped onto the music with a house-painter’s brush. But the shocking thing here is that the elisions occur in such unexpected places, each an organic revelation. The moments of unanticipated interest and sweetness are everywhere, and many an otherwise static sequence is suddenly humanized by the swoopy beginning or tailing off of a phrase. It is like finding newborn puppies whimpering in your sock drawer—and simply the best string playing I have ever heard. The odd thing about experiencing Bruckner this way is that it maintains all its power—but seems to include a touch of suppressed eroticism beyond the usual cathedrals of sound. The music seems to have been composed by an actual human! It moves freely and easily, like a person.
In Barenboim’s early Chicago Symphony recording of the symphony, the basic elements of this performance were already present, but hampered in a way by Solti’s orchestra, trained to come in hard on the downbeat. The Staatskapelle’s playing is much more natural, fluid, and behind the beat. A good example is the famous cymbal crash at the height of the slow movement. Barenboim has his timpani begin their roll way ahead of things and lead up to the cymbal crash, instead of their coming in totally together in a monolithic shock. Another lovely touch is his handling of the chorale in the finale. In both performances, the second phrase of the chorale is played much more quietly and raptly than the first, but the Staatskapelle catches the magic of this more than the CSO. It sounds like pure instinct. And the famous Chicago brass? Well, they now sound too “American” for me, too extroverted.
Clearly, though, Barenboim has grown impressively as an interpreter in the decades since. The depths now revealed in his conducting are profound and reflect learning how to keep audiences interested through long Wagnerian spans. Indeed, I’d venture no one understands German music better than this Argentine/Israeli. Anyone who wonders what Wagner tubas should sound like need only listen to the glowing wind-down of the slow movement here. Molten gold seems to pour over the lip of time.
FANFARE: Steven Kruger
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 7 in E major, WAB 107 by Anton Bruckner
Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra
Written: 1881-1883; Vienna, Austria
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