Bruckner 7 & 8/Giulini [Testament]

0 of 5 stars

Bruckner
Symphony No.7 in E [Nowak edition]
Symphony No.8 in C minor [1890 version, edited Nowak]

Berliner Philharmoniker
Carlo Maria Giulini

Recorded in Philharmonie, Berlin – Symphony 7 on 5 March 1985; Symphony 8 on 11 February 1984


Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: March 2010
CD No: TESTAMENT SBT 1437 [Symphony 7]
TESTAMENT SBT2 1436
(2 CDs)
Duration: 64 minutes [Symphony 7]
85 minutes

Following its rescuing in 2001 of Carlo Maria Giulini’s 1974 EMI recording of Bruckner’s Second Symphony (Nowak edition) with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra (SBT 1210), Testament has now added two valuable Giulini Bruckner performances to the catalogue as part of its first releases of Berliner Philharmoniker (as we’re now meant to call it) performances broadcast originally by Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg. While three other discs concentrate on a selection of composers per disc (from Gabrieli to Debussy and Ravel), this pair of releases concentrate on individual symphonies by Bruckner.

While they work perfectly well on their own, even Giulini didn’t necessarily consider them sole works for a concert. At a BBC Prom on 18 July 1982 he prefaced Symphony No.7 (a performance now on BBC Legends) with Mozart’s ‘Linz’ Symphony (highly appropriate as Linz was Bruckner’s place of birth), although his Bruckner 8 stood alone in the Philharmonia Orchestra’s Royal Festival Hall season on 18 September 1983 (also preserved on BBC Legends).

Regrettably these two London performances were after I had left college in London and before I returned to the capital to work, so I never did see Giulini conduct Bruckner live. I mention them to remark on the extraordinary ability of the record-collector to be able to follow Giulini around Europe in a Bruckner pilgrimage on CD and DVD. Having conducted Bruckner 7 (BBCL 4123-2) and 8 (BBCL 4159, 2 discs, with Dvořák 8) in London in the summers of 1982 and 1983, we can now hear him in Berlin in these two Testament issues from late 1984 (No.8) and 1985 (No.7). In June 1984 was in Vienna with the Philharmonic, to make the first of his three classic DG Bruckner recordings – Symphony No 8 – released in 1985. He also conducted Bruckner 8 on 8 December 1985 at Stockholm’s Konserthus in the inaugural concert of the World Philharmonic Orchestra, which is available on a EuroArts DVD (2051368), released in 2006. In 1997, DG issued Giulini’s Vienna Bruckner 7 from performances in June 1986.

Although not directly concerning us here, to complete the Giulini Bruckner story, there are three recordings of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony. The first, on EMI, dates from his Chicago years – laid down on 1 and 2 December 1976. Over a decade later, back in the Musikverein in June 1988, he recorded it live with the Vienna Philharmonic and there is also a complete DVD performance including a filmed rehearsal with the Stuttgart Radio symphony Orchestra.

Giulini came late to Bruckner – that Second Symphony recording from 1974 was his first time with one of the composer’s symphonies, and he only did conduct those four symphonies of the canon. But with his deep-seated faith (Roman Catholicism, just like Bruckner) and his early years growing up in the Italian Alps, where Bruckner’s beloved landler was just as prevalent in Italy’s South Tyrol, there can be little surprise of the later-flowering affinity between this conductor and this composer.

The triple recordings of Bruckner 7 and 8 are, to all intents and purposes, very similar. There are slight differentials in movement timings, the most marked being between the Prom and Vienna Philharmonic Bruckner 7s, with the latter (68’) just over five minutes’ longer than the former and this newly released Berlin performance standing in the middle (64’). The Bruckner 8s are closer – indeed the Philharmonia and Berlin Philharmonic’s first movements are exactly the same length and the remaining three movements in the Berlin performance all slower than the previous year in London. While very slightly longer, the World Philharmonic and Vienna Philharmonic performances are out by only seconds in the first two movements, although the Vienna Adagio does add nearly three minutes onto the Stuttgart performance’s time, only slightly clawed back by just under a minute in the finale.

Now who, apart from a Giulini nut like me, would like all three performances of Bruckner 7 and all four of Bruckner 8? All follow Giulini’s adherence to Leopold Nowak’s editions of the scores and, in the Seventh’s slow movement includes the debateable cymbal and triangle at figure W. All also include Giulini’s trademark extended low growling at times which, together with his closed eyes and clenched fists, made it seem as if he was forcing the music out of his very soul.

So, what are the merits of the Testament releases that follow the rest? Obviously, Berliner Philharmoniker itself is hard to beat; here in the late Karajan era (and who was also a dedicated Brucknerian). The blend of timbres works well, and Giulini is a seamless Bruckner conductor, with the composer’s trademark silences between different themes here completely natural. The recorded sound is also good and fairly natural even if the winds are sometimes spot-lit. Indeed, while the string openings of both symphonies grow from nothing, winds and brass, in their close placing, tend never to achieve a true pianissimo. However, given the strength of the performances, their immediacy and how quickly one gets involved in it, this is a small point.

Giulini favoured concert recording, arguing that studio takes and retakes couldn’t replicate the tension of a live performance. Like the BBC Legends release, but unlike DG’s Vienna recordings (taped at a number of performances), these two Testament discs replicate what the audience in the Philharmonie (and those listening on Radio Brandenburg) would have witnessed and heard. Any infelicities, audience noise (relatively little in fact) and Giulini’s groaning do not stand against a wholehearted welcome for these discs.

Giulini’s devout belief in the scores shines through at every turn; his trust in Bruckner and his respect for the players evident throughout. At the end of the Seventh, the audience (as all good German audiences do) hold back, until there’s a sotto voce “Bravo” from someone before the ensuing acclamation. All we are missing on these discs is the visual element of Giulini’s final bow (never a solo, only ever with the orchestra), when he would hold up both hands and repeatedly close his fingers over his palms, indicating goodnight to all.

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