Sunday, January 5, 2014

Bruckner 7 -- a symphony built on its opening pair of musical twin towers

[As I explained at the top of Friday night's preview, this is the second part of a three-part Bruckner series, begun December 6-8 with "Bruckner's Fourth Symphony -- four stories for four movements," a reprise of a January 2010 post I've always been fond of. This Bruckner Seventh preview post appeared originally in July 2012. The Bruckner series -- and, I'm projecting, Sunday Classics -- will conclude with a new post on the Ninth Symphony. -- Ken]

The string chorale that bursts out shortly after the start of the Adagio (at bar 4 above) of the Bruckner Seventh

by Ken

As promised in Friday night's preview, our subject today is the seventh of Anton Bruckner's outsize nine symphonies, which unlike the Fourth Symphony, with its remarkably evenly weighted four movements, is cast in the form, as I put it, of "an opening movement and an ensuing slow movement of such emotional weight as to dominate the whole piece." (We heard the whole of the Fourth Symphony in the January 2010 post "Bruckner's Fourth Symphony -- four stories for four movements." We also heard the formative Second Symphony, in the August 2011 post "Bruckner begins to establish his voice, hushed and clear." The latter post, I just discovered, had a broken link to the click-through, which I've fixed -- in case anyone has been waiting all this time to read and hear that post.)

Which means that our obvious focus is going to be on those first two movements, which dramatically counteract the silly image of Bruckner which seems to me to excite the ardor of the composer's devout faithful: Bruckner as a a sort of musical idiot savant, a piously Catholic naïf piously erecting monumental musical cathedrals in the ether. About Bruckner being in some ways naïve I don't think there's much doubt, but I think we would have some serious disagreements, the Bruckner Faithful and I, as to where and how that naïveté kicks in. However, the idea that these symphonies are underpinned by reflexive piety seems to me fairly nutty. (I'm embarrassed to own that I've used one of those cheesy architectural mega-metaphors for the title of this post. It's just so tempting.)

There's a reason why Bruckner's Fourth and Seventh Symphonies, and perhaps also the three movements he completed of the Ninth, are the symphonies of his which are often enjoyed by music-lovers who don't have much use for the rest of his work. And yet it seems to me that it would be hard to think of anything more quintessentially Brucknerian than the orchestral chorale we just heard from near the opening of the Adagio of the Seventh, or the opening two minutes of the symphony which we're about to hear, which already demonstrate Bruckner's dependence on repetition as well as the way he can build the orchestra from the softest hush to the most thundering outburst.

BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 7 in E: opening


The performances we've heard so far, by the way, both feature the Vienna Philharmonic (the orchestra best known to Bruckner), as indeed do all the performances we're going to hear today. The snatch of the Adagio at the top is conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini, that of the opening of the symphony by Karl Böhm.

Next we'll hear the complete performances of these movements -- and more.

Eugen Jochum conducts his longtime orchestra, the Bavarian Radio Symphony, in the first part of the opening Allegro moderato of one of his signature pieces, the Bruckner Seventh Symphony. (The conclusion of the movement is posted below.)

BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 7 in E

We start, of course, with those two great powerhouse movements, the Allegro moderato and the Adagio. That the dominant mood is elegiac is for me reinforced by the odd sensation that these are both slow movements and both -- notwithstanding the actual tonality, E major -- in minor mode.

i. Allegro moderato

Bruckner was always central to Herbert von Karajan's repertory, and the Seventh Symphony was a particular specialty. His special mastery of the full resources of the symphony orchestra was regularly channeled into a masterful delivery of what we might call the standard traditional Germanic understanding of the piece -- including two lovely earlier recordings with his own Berlin Philharmonic.

I think you'll hear here that Carlo Maria Giulini, a great Brucknerian (we heard some of his remarkable 1974 EMI recording of the Second Symphony with the Vienna Symphony in the aforementioned post on that work, and if we ever get around to "doing" the Bruckner Ninth, we'll certainly be dipping into his terrifying, blood-drenched second recording, with the Vienna Philharmonic) who had unusual access to the dark, depressed side of the composer's imaginings, lives the music at a somewhat higher intensity level.

Vienna Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, cond. DG, recorded live, April 1989

Vienna Philharmonic, Carlo Maria Giulini, cond. DG, recorded June 1986

ii. Adagio: Sehr feierlich und sehr langsam
(Very solemn and very slow)

The great Adagio of the Seventh -- which we heard first in the January 2010 post, "Adagio -- moving slowly from Beethoven through Bruckner to Mahler" -- became associated in Bruckner's mind with Wagner through the accident of his hero's death while he was actively engaged with its composition. But while the movement is clearly elegiac in tone, it's hard to believe that it was ever imagined as an elegy to any particular individual.

This may be the most beautiful movement Bruckner ever composed, and for all its breadth and expansiveness undoubtedly also one of the hardest to miss the point(s) of. I think we have a couple of really special performances here, though. Both Eugen Jochum and Karl Böhm had been not only conducting but recording Bruckner since the '30s, and while Jochum took a perhaps more optimistic view than I'm inclined to, his close personal identification with the music was one of the great musical identifications -- nobody managed the great climax of the Adagio more ringingly than he did, and in recorded performances from all over the musical map, which adapted to a larger degree than one might expect to the particular qualities of the orchestra he was conducting. This live performance from Vienna seems to me at once utterly representative of his way with the Bruckner Seventh and special for its embrace of the Vienna Philharmonic.

As for Böhm, Bruckner figured less in the concert activity of his later decades, but fortunately his record companies. Decca produced excellent stereo versions of the Third and Fourth Symphonies (if I could have only one recording of the Fourth, it would probably be this one), and in 1976 DG made gorgeous recordings of the Seventh and Eighth for release originally as a three-LP set (the symphonies have been released as single CDs) -- all with the Vienna Philharmonic, naturally. It may be worth considering that while both Bruckner and Böhm were adoptively Viennese, they in fact both hailed from Austria's "other" major cities -- Bruckner from Linz, Böhm from Graz.

Vienna Philharmonic, Eugen Jochum, cond. Live performance, June 9, 1974

Vienna Philharmonic, Karl Böhm, cond. DG, recorded September 1976

The coming of electrical recording coincided with the publication, finally, of editions of Bruckner's symphonies that attempted to re-create some version of the composer's own conceptions rather than the heavily reworked editions prepared by well-meaning friends and disciples. Considering how cumbersomely a Bruckner symphony fit onto 78s, it's remarkable how much recording was done in the '30s, and at the forefront were none other than Jochum and arl Böhm, recording mostly in their then-musical homes, Hamburg and Dresden, respectively. Jochum's Seventh was done in Vienna, however, and we also have this lovely wartime Böhm Seventh from Vienna. I thought we might hear the Adagio from both.

Vienna Philharmonic, Eugen Jochum, cond. Telefunken, recorded May 8-9, 1935

Vienna Philharmonic, Karl Böhm, cond. Live performance, June 4-5, 1943

iii: Scherzo: Sehr schnell (Very fast)

This is the movement we heard in Friday night's "Two scherzos" preview post, set alongside the Scherzo of the Bruckner Fourth Symphony. As I noted, the Scherzo of the Seventh isn't that much shorter than that of the Fourth, but in its proper place it is dwarfed by the two giant movements that precede it. The Scherzo of the Fourth seems to me a much fuller, more rounded musical experience, as against the more monomaniacal quality of the Scherzo of the Seventh, which almost seems to be running from ghosts haunting the earlier movements.

Vienna Philharmonic, Carlo Maria Giulini, cond. DG, recorded June 1986

Vienna Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, cond. DG, recorded live, April 1989

iv: Finale: Bewegt, doch nicht schnell
(Lively, but not fast)

The finale of the Seventh is almost anti-Brucknerian in its concision and getting-to-the-pointness. Usually Bruckner liked to recapitulate and ruminate in his finales.

Vienna Philharmonic, Eugen Jochum, cond. Live performance, June 9, 1974

Vienna Philharmonic, Karl Böhm, cond. DG, recorded September 1976

Here's the conclusion of the first movement of the Bruckner Seventh as performed by Eugen Jochum and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, of which we heard the first half above. (The remaining movements can also be found on YouTube.)

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