It's not promising when the PR notice says that this live Bruckner Seventh derives from a week-long survey of the nine symphonies. When Barenboim came to Carnegie Hall to pull the same stunt with Mahler's complete symphonies, the critics noted fatigue in the playing - such marathons aren't good for interpretations, either. Masterpieces aren't meant to be rattled off to see how many you can play in the shortest period f time. Barenboim has already recorded two high-profile Bruckner Sevenths with the Chicago Sym. (DG) and the Berlin Phil. (Teldec), and his reputation for imitating Furtwangler in this composer's works has become a canard by now.
To begin with, the recorded sound is very good in terms of clarity, naturalness, and detail. The orchestra, which isn't world class, plays well without rivaling either the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonic - nonetheless the Staatskapelle Berlin is taken from the pit orchestra of the Berlin State Opera and certainly represents a high standard of playing. As for the fatigue factor, maybe I was primed to listen for it, but it does seem as if the performance isn't an event but an example of reliable musicians working at a good professional level. That special intensity which marks a lasting performance isn't quite present, not that anything goes amiss. But when the solo flute enters with its first-movement solos, for example, I don't hear the player reaching for expression.
On a more positive note, insofar as Barenboim's previous Bruckner struck me as inflated at times, this one is very well managed, scaled for great impact where it counts but leaving room for softer, more modest stretches, too. Nothing drags, and there is forward momentum without allowing the line to sag. Barenboim is a seasoned veteran used to conducting at the highest levels,and it shows. Two fairly recent Sevenths that I've heard from Marek Janowski (Pentatone) and Kent Nagano (Sony) were much less impressive. In fact, the longer I listened, the more impressed I was with Barenboim's ability to find something to say in this symphony. The Adagio in particular is done with flexibility, poise, and sensitive phrasing; it doesn't feel externalized.
Another virtue of this performance is that Barenboim doesn't undercut his best moments with willful intrusions later on. There's a sense of warmth and spontaneity that holds good throughout. Perhaps he has stopped trying to be self-consciously great, and as a result his natural musical gifts, which are phenomenal, emerge more clearly. The Scherzo is unusually light and unforced. It does settle into a jog trot, however, making this the weakest movement. Orchestra fatigue may be settling in, too. The finale returns to form, sounding bright and alert. In all, this is a superb reading that falls just short of the best, largely because of the Scherzo.