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Bruckner : Symphonie, n° 7
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120 ans après sa création à Leipzig (sous la baguette d'Arthur Nikisch), Philippe Herreweghe vous propose de redécouvrir sur instruments d'époque cette septième Symphonie qui assura le premier succès de Bruckner au-delà des frontières de l'Autriche et ne fit l'objet d'aucune révision. En dédicaçant sa partition à Louis II de Bavière, le compositeur signait d'ailleurs un affront bien senti à des Viennois décidément bien peu ouverts à sa musique?Egalement disponible en SACD.
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After a short adjustment period, I really took to Herreweghe's idea of an orchestra with a reduced string section playing on gut strings. Without the overwhelming string textures of most modern orchestras one can really hear the wind instruments. Not only does this mean one can hear all their interesting contrapuntal lines, but one can also hear when Bruckner adds them to the string textures to change the color a little.
Herreweghe's use of historic instruments (and modern replicas) really pays benefits with the brass which are far more nimble than most modern orchestras. One loses some oomph, of course, but in Bruckner's many loud dotted passages for the brass one actually hears music as opposed to the galumphing that modern, overly resonant instruments produce.
The real problem with this recording is Herreweghe's inflexibility with tempo and complete unwillingness to indulge in even the slightest rubato.
The tempos are generally quicker than one usually hears in this music, but that isn't by itself a flaw. One of my favorite recordings of this piece is William Steinberg's old recording with the Pittsburgh Symphony that clocks in at nearly the same 60 minutes Herreweghe takes.
The difference is that Steinberg knows when to push ahead and when to relax and indulge a phrase. Herreweghe pretty much bulls ahead without any patience for what a little phrasing might do. This may be the style of modern early instrument performances, but Bruckner wrote romantic music no matter how austere his musical ethos was. Herreweghe's style might work better with Bruckner's 5th symphony, but the 7th calls for some appreciation of the beauty of the music.
Overall, I suspect Herreweghe's way with Bruckner might improve as he spends more time with the composer. As a result, I look forward to listening to other Bruckner from him. With this recording, though, proceed with caution.
It is not just speed that is the issue; at around an hour Herreweghe's certainly one of the fastest performances on record, but in the good company of William Steinberg, Heinz Rögner and even Knappertsbusch. However, the latter had the advantage of directing the VPO, just as Rögner had the Berlin Radio Symphony in its heyday and all are distinctly more flexible than the rather metronomic Herreweghe. He has an orchestra of only 76 instrumentalists playing on gut strings and replica period instruments without much vibrato and thus distinctly underpowered at key points.
Hence the opening has little glow or tension about it; instead of hearing the stirrings of a big beast in that hesitant thrumming of that opening theme, we are almost listening to the town band run through a practice exercise and we lack the sense of building essential to Bruckner long, arcing conceptions. Thus the first movement jog-trots without the requisite variation in weight of sound or dynamics and the impact of the chorale is diminished. To be fair, the conclusion is ethereal but so delicate as to fail to gather momentum and the climax disappoints.
Similarly, the stern prophet's voice which opens the Adagio is muted by the lack of vibrato and the strings' line bulges and whines for the same reason. The melody literally cannot sing because the orchestra is doing the instrumental equivalent of humming. Nonetheless, the music itself is so beautiful and the playing so dedicated, with fine intonation, that they almost get away with it. Once gain again, however, the climax fails to overwhelm; compensation comes in the form of the ravishing horn and Wagner tuba playing over the last minute or so.
The Scherzo is pretty foolproof in the hands of any decent conductor and Herreweghe captures its mood without it sounding exactly demonic. The Finale constitutes the greatest disappointment; there simply isn't enough caressing of the music in the quiet passages and the big, bombastic utterances in march time are prosaic.
What is Bruckner if you deliberately underplay his Romanticism and spirituality? Certainly not what he intended us to understand him to be. This is an interesting experiment in re-thinking his most popular symphony but not one, I think, which ultimately honours his spirit.