For those music lovers who are at best lukewarm about Bruckner, this live performance of his 4 th and 7 th symphonies by the Munich Philharmonic under the baton of Thielemann may yet change hearts. Mention Bruckner's Romantic symphony and the Munich PO and invariably the discussion will turn to the late Sergiu Celibidache and his enthralling live recording on EMI in 1993. It has a lot of admirers and justifiably so, although I still think his finale overly long. For me the top choice remains Gunter Wand's incandescent 1998 recording on BMG /RCA.
The Munich sound on this disc is really top notch and gives nothing away to their more exalted brethren in Berlin. Under Thielemann, this 1880/1881 version of the Romantic is arguably one of the best modern recording, artistically, and without argument the best recorded audio. The strings sound sweet and the brasses and wood winds simply scrumptious! Video following of the score is meticulous and spot on. Thielemann succeeds in bringing out the rustic and medieval elements of the symphony in a reading that is quite often charming but always thrilling. One is reminded of heroes like Siegfried, of castles and knights and troubadours and huntsmen in woodlands but above everything else, an all encompassing feeling of joy, a celebration of existence in a romanticised earthly paradise, albeit Germanic! Just listen to the exultant finale.
The 7th symphony is darker and more profound. No programme here, just music and emotion on an higher plane.
The first movement opens with a soaring phrase from violins and cellos and the first motif comes from his Mass in D minor. For the most part the music is calm and melodious interrupted now and again by fierce blazes of brass. Exciting stuff. But it is really the second movement which ultimately decides whether a performance of this symphony flourishes or perishes. Here Thielemann triumphs. Here Bruckner wrote an Adagio that is perhaps the most exalted movement in all of classical music, and Thielemann brings it off beautifully. A dirge in its very nature and composed as an elegy for the death of Bruckner's idol Wagner, this passage is truly sublime. Beginning mournfully and solemnly, with lower strings and augmented brass including 4 Wagnerian tubas, the movement picks up in feeling and tension as the theme is stated and restated, and pushes onwards slowly but surely towards the inevitable climax and lo and behold, Thielemann caps it with a great clash of cymbals! Now Bruckner buffs will either nod in agreement or shake their heads depending on their view of the authenticity of this addition. Bruckner gave way to the famous conductor Nikisch who more or less demanded the cymbal clash, but does it really make that much of a difference ? Here Thielemann releases the tension admirably with its use, but the great Gunter Wand built up tension and released it without this brash clash and for many, myself included, his searing performance of the Adagio is without equal !
Then follows a striking scherzo and a trio, delightfully played, as the third movement. The feisty fourth movement repeats motifs from the previous three, sometimes fast, sometimes agitated, before at last pitching headlong into a furious and ebullient finale. What a way to finish !
Only the future will tell whether this Bruckner disc of Thielemann will stand the test of time and become a benchmark of these symphonies for this decade. I have a very strong feeling it will !