Bruckner: SYMPHONY NO. 7
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Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra/JESUS LOPEZ-COBOS (Telarc)
For many reasons, the symphonies of Anton Bruckner are not performed as frequently as those of Mahler, Brahms, or Beethoven. One reason is that these works are fairly lengthy, at an average performance time of close to 70 minutes. Another is the emphasis that Bruckner placed on the brass sections in those symphonies, meant to mimic the grand cathedral organs that he once plied his trade on. And a third reason may be that so many of his symphonies are in different editions, with sometimes wide differences in orchestration (Bruckner was nothing if not self-critical). But in our day, they are certainly far more popular, especially in the number of recordings made of them, than they were at the end of World War II. Bruckner often utilized elements of peasant folk music from his native Austria, as well as the structural forces present in Beethoven, the lyricism of Franz Schubert, and, although this is sometimes overstated by more zealous aficionados, the huge dramatics of Richard Wagner. What we end up with, however, despite the numerous editions of the symphonies, is a symphonic canon like no other in history, past or present.
A lot of those elements are there in the composer’s Symphony No. 7, which Bruckner had worked on for several years, and which premiered on December 30, 1884 in Leipzig, Germany with the legendary conductor Arthur Nikisch conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. The symphony’s four movements are structured as follows:
Adagio: Sehr Feierlich, Und Sehr Langsam
Scherzo: Sehr Schnell/Trio/Etwas Langsamer
Finale: Bewegt, Doch Nicht Schnell
The opening shimmering strings, followed shortly thereafter by the horns, are very much redolent of what happens in the opening of the Beethoven, but much more gradually; and what is also noted is that the home key is one not often found in very many symphonies, and almost none in the active symphonic repertoire: E Major. The iron-clad brass chorales are very much in evidence in this opening movement, but they share the stage with the woodwinds and the strings in the very lengthy slow movement that follows, climaxing in grand fashion with a fortissimo declaration (though this version of the Adagio doesn’t have the controversial cymbal crash that most music scholars say was put in there by overzealous supporters in Bruckner’s time to underlie the connection between him and Wagner). The Scherzo has the almost maritime feel of Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman overture; and the final movement returns to the impressive soundscape feel of the opening.
There have been more than a few recordings of this work (sometimes sub-titled the "Lyric", for whatever reason), and by experts, notably Herbert von Karajan, Karl Bohm, Bernard Haitink, Riccardo Chailly, and Eugen Jochum. These conductors, of course, are all esteemed European masters. But on this 1989 recording, there is ample evidence that American orchestras can put their own stamp on this composer’s works too. In this case, that would be the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, led here by their then-Music Director Jesus Lopez-Cobos. This is a recording that holds up quite well under the magnificent company of its Central European counterparts. Born in Spain, Lopez-Cobos definitely knows his way around the vast soundscape of the Bruckner 7th, and the Cincinnati Symphony, one of the most underrated orchestras in America, if not the world at large, is more than up to the challenge, with their brass section something to behold (no small achievement given how much they must do here).
In recent decades, the field of recordings of Bruckner symphonies, including complete cycles, has become very crowded, in spite of (or even perhaps because of) the extreme size of each. This one of the Bruckner 7th, from what seems like such an unassuming orchestra for a Bruckner work, however, is one that I heartily recommend.