Album review: Mighty Bruckner cycle launch from François-Xavier Roth and Gürzenich-Orchester Köln

Two years ahead of Anton Bruckner’s forthcoming bicentenary in 2024, Gürzenich-Orchester Köln and their Chief Conductor François-Xavier Roth have embarked upon a joint quest of committing the composer’s complete symphonies on disc for Myrios Classics. Auguring the journey, the orchestra and conductor have put forth the first volume in the series, containing a mighty account of Symphony No. 7 in E major, WAB 107 (1881-83/1885).

Recorded in conjunction with concert outings at the Kölner Philharmonie on 8-10 December 2019, the performance adopts a wonderful balance between translucence and depth, grounded in beautifully devised symphonic architecture. There is a lot of Wagner at play, certainly, but Roth and his fellow musicians look far beyond the composer’s idol, coming up with a revelatory reading, paying homage to Bruckner’s immaculate originality and, perhaps, to his roots in the late music of Franz Schubert as well.

Composed between 1881 and 1883 and dedicated to Ludwig II of Bavaria, the Seventh Symphony was premiered in Leipzig on 30 December 1884 with Arthur Nikisch conducting the Gewandhausorchester. The performance resulted in the single most resounding success for Bruckner and paved the way for the expanded scope and scale of his two last symphonies.

The score of the Seventh Symphony comes down to us in its 1885 version, revised by the composer. The performance here is based on the third revision of the 1954 edition by Leopold Nowak, published in 2003 by Internationale Bruckner-Gesellschaft.

The symphony comes into being with a substantial Allegro moderato first movement. The opening page features Bruckner’s signature tremolo textures, evoking a sonorous aura for the introductory melodic idea played by the celli. The introduction leads to the presentation of the first theme proper in the woodwinds, subsequently transformed into various guises by Bruckner’s dazzling imagination. This material is contrasted by descending scalar figures laid out in octaves.

Out of these ingredients, the composer crafts out orchestral dramaturgy of spellbinding intensity, clad in riveting symphonic raiments. A case in point of well-proportioned overall symphonic scheme, the opening movement is brought to sonic reality with vigorous instrumental narrative by the Gürzenich-Orchester under Roth, giving rise to symphonic drama art its finest. A celebration of orchestral invention, the opening movement constitutes a tremendous musical journey.

At the core of the symphony lies its solemn Adagio, one of the most astonishing movements Bruckner ever devised. Marked Sehr feierlich und sehr langsam, the dark-hued Adagio constitutes an extended symphonic arch, clad in awe-inspiring sonic majesty. Here, the composer extends his sonic palette with four Wagner tubas, whose deep-ringing tones add up to textures of striking evocativeness.

Bruckner’s initial impulses for his slow movement came with the news of Wagner’s ailing health and imminent death. While the Adagio is conceived as a memorial, the music yields beyond a funeral procession, constituting a proto-cinematic panorama of those otherworldly realms beyond the wall of death. Musically speaking, there are two main ideas, which are worked and reworked within sequences of sonic blocks, towering into a series of climaxes and culminating in solemnly impassioned final upheaval, followed by echoes of quiet farewell.

With Roth on the podium, the Gürzenich-Orchester delivers one of the most astounding performances of the Adagio ever caught on microphones. Shunning away from all false pathos, the movement is unraveled with refined delicacy and extraordinary articulation, with eloquently shaped melodic lines of wistful contemplation. And wherever the score calls for depth and otherworldly echo from the brass, woven together with low strings and winds, the orchestra builds up to the most commanding musical statements imaginable. A hallowed experience, no less, the Agadio yields to an epiphany.

The ensuing Scherzo is, typically for Bruckner, based on a clear-cut ABA form, with Sehr schnell outer sections in A minor framing Etwas langsamer central Trio in F major. The movement opens with swift string figurations, setting the stage for the main theme ringed out by a solo trumpet. Full orchestral workout is to follow, before the movement segues into the contrasting Trio. However, its meditative Naturlaut tones are quickly swept away by the whirling Scherzo da capo.

A movement of buoyancy and bite, the Scherzo is given a flowing reading, where incorporeality and trenchancy meet, resulting in a gripping performance, one to take abode in the listener’s mind from the opening measures to the final double-bar.

To close the symphony, Bruckner conjures up a Finale of peculiar unexpectedness. Instead of a contrapuntal tour-de-force à la the Fifth Symphony (1875-76/1877-78), the composer introduces much lighter touch, evoking the concept of a classical symphony. Still, it would be misleading to characterise Bruckner’s Finale as a straightforward affair. Picking up the tremolo effect from the opening movement, the music is derived from three theme groups, yielding to myriad textures. Wagner tubas make their return, contributing to the vast sonic spectrum of the movement.

The performance by Roth and the Gürzenich-Orchester bears sweeping dexterity and lyricism, while remaining ever sensitive to the Finale’s darker undercurrents, which are ever flowing around the corner, no matter how sunlit the texture appears at first sight. Thus, we get to hear radiant woodwind lines being contrasted by gorgeously deep brass chords, with the string section divided between sweeping melodic lines in the violins and plucked rhythmic patterns in the lower parts.

Ever marvellously paced by Roth, the movement unfolds according to genuinely symphonic blueprint, resulting in captivating orchestral narrative, awash with colour and detail. Roth does not linger, nor does he rush along, but rather lets the music grow at its inherent tempi, providing us with an extraordinary closing.

A notable opening for an intriguing project, one looks forward to the next instalments in the Gürzenich-Orchester and Roth Bruckner cycle with thrill and joy. In terms of engineering, the Myrios team has done wonderful job with the Seventh Symphony, capturing the fine-tuned performance in ravishing detail and spaciousness. May this seamless teamwork carry over to the ensuing releases in equal measure.

Gürzenich-Orchester Köln

François-Xavier Roth, conductor

Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 7 in E major, WAB 107 (1881-83/1885)

Recorded at Kölner Philharmonie on 8-10 December 2019

Myrios Classics MYR030 (2021), 1 CD

© Jari Kallio

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