Symphony No. 7 in E
Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Georg Tintner, cond.)
A Massive Symphonic Homage to Wagner
The knock against the Austro-German symphonist Anton Bruckner (1824–1896) goes like this: He was obsessed with the sweeping gestures of Richard Wagner and quick to echo Wagner's devices in pieces that wandered and swelled portentously but wound up lacking melodic substance. Bruckner's symphonies are long (No. 8 lasts eighty minutes). The conductor Arturo Toscanini once complained that the devout Catholic "never gets off his knees," loading even his symphonic music with a suffocating piousness.
This work, Bruckner's biggest hit, turns those negatives into virtues—it's a grandiose, majestic statement in which each theme feels like a thoughtful offering to the glory of God. It was written in 1883, and at least partly inspired by the death of Wagner: Bruckner told a conductor friend that the second movement, the Adagio in C-Sharp, came to him just after a premonition of Wagner's demise. Although the tone is set by trembling strings in the opening movement, the piece takes off in the ominous, enveloping second movement, which lasts twenty-five minutes. If he's stingy with memorable melodies elsewhere, Bruckner lays out a feast here, and his serpentine strung-together lines, written on church organ, grapple with big unanswered questions that don't resolve in conventional amen-cadence ways.
The Adagio helps clarify Bruckner's historical place: He's the evolutionary link between Wagner and Mahler, transforming some of Wagner's dramatic impulses to orchestral music. The young Mahler attended the Vienna premiere of Bruckner's Third Symphony and recalled it as a key moment.
This version of Bruckner's seventh symphony, recorded in 1999, is conducted by Georg Tintner, who was educated in Austria but, like many other artists, fled the Nazis. It catches him late in his career—learning he had terminal cancer, he committed suicide not long after making this recording—and is the jewel in a sparkling, deeply restrained set of recordings of all nine Bruckner symphonies.
Released: 1999, Naxos
Key Tracks: Adagio (second movement)
Catalog Choice: Masses Nos. 2 and 3, English Chamber Orchestra (Daniel Barenboim, cond.).
Next Stop: Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 4
Book Pages: 125–126