On September 6 Alan Gilbert led his first concert as Chief Conductor of the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester; it was an ambitious affair (review below) and a couple of months earlier they had recorded this Bruckner 7 for concurrent release, which Sony Classical has wasted no time in bringing to our attention.
It starts promisingly with the lightest of violin shimmers and a rather nostalgic view of the opening melody (suggestive of times past), beautifully moulded. However it soon becomes clear that Gilbert is unable to sustain his broadness of approach and the pace quickens somewhat, and at 3:44 I would have liked something more prominent from the oboe (a little shy here). Proceedings are therefore a little unsettled, and by 5:24 it is self-evident that Gilbert sees what has occurred to this point as a slow introduction, although such tendencies return, and emotionally affecting they are too; and, anyway, this is Nowak’s publication and he is more of a tempo-manipulator than Robert Haas. I smile at Sony’s annotation: “Revised edition submitted by Leopold Nowak”.
Even allowing that Gilbert is being faithful to Nowak’s interventions, this first movement doesn’t quite hang together; numerous effective moments though, and although the recording is sonorous and detailed, finding the right volume level is a little tricky: too low and there is a lack of focus in the bass, while too loud brings a tendency of shrillness to brass and upper strings. Get it spot-on though and fortissimos fill this large and resonant venue gloriously: not a cathedral of sound if leaning that way.
It’s the Adagio that steals the show here – solemn, eloquent, glowing, intense – Gilbert preparing well for the Moderato section and delivering it with integrity to retain the hallowed nature of the music, a deep-well of emotion, not least to the news that Bruckner’s idol Richard Wagner had died. Gilbert’s handling of this movement is exemplary; without denuding anything en route to it, he ensures that the climax (with Nowak’s disputed percussion of course) is the true high point, followed by a baleful and sad envoi.
The Scherzo is well-judged in its rhythmic point and Heaven-storming qualities, the Trio flowing, looking either side of it (romance in a classical framework), whereas the Finale has its Haydnesque qualities to the fore, wit and sacred tread as compatible bedfellows – tempos differentiated yet belonging, so too quickening of pace and the brassy majestic passages.
I wonder if we have unedited takes here, for what I assume is a recording made under studio conditions, albeit with a few coughs and the odd noise-off, has the sense of being carefully prepared yet spontaneous, a feeling of realness. And if some reservations remain it is partly in Gilbert (unwittingly) having to follow Bernard Haitink, who chose Bruckner 7 to step down rather than retire from conducting (the Dutchman recently revealed he doesn’t like the word “career”). Three of Haitink’s Vienna Philharmonic ‘farewells’ were broadcast, and are reviewed below.
Gilbert’s approach to Bruckner 7 isn’t dissimilar, without perhaps emulating Haitink’s through-line wisdom (also using Nowak); yet, having adjusted by playing Gilbert’s version quite a few times, and with a fair distance now put to Haitink’s ‘hat-trick’ (never to be forgotten though), I believe I have done the American justice; his Bruckner 7 ends in a resolute blaze and an emphatic timpani stroke: arrival.