Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
We have learned to expect the unexpected from any Nikolaus Harnoncourt recording, and this new Bruckner Seventh is no exception. His tempos for all four movements are quicker than today's norm. For example, he gives the first movement's main theme a restless, yearning quality, at some remove from the usual prayerfulness. Harnoncourt also holds back the melody's ecstatic sweep until its second presentation, when the full orchestra joins in. Although masterfully balanced between sections, Harnoncourt disconcertingly whips up the coda's accelerando to a speed that sounds completely out of proportion to what has gone before. In the adagio, the lyrical second subject moves at a wonderfully flowing tempo, similar to Bruno Walter's on Sony Classical. Also like Walter, Harnoncourt omits the percussion in the climax--but in this instance, it turns out to be a frustrating move, because he employs a dramatic retard just before the crucial moment, which makes you expect the cymbal crash. Such a tease! This is almost compensated for by the baleful playing of the Wagner tubas in the following "Wagner's funeral" passage. I used to think of the scherzo as seagoing music, but Harnoncourt's quick tempo and blazing brass make it sound more like the Ride of the Valkyries, ferocious rather than rollicking. The finale is surprisingly quick, removing all trace of pompousness from the two big brass pronouncements of its main theme. The symphony ends in a blaze of gold from the Vienna brass, who play marvelously throughout. In fact, this is one recording of the Vienna Philharmonic where we are not overbalanced by the strings, most likely due to Teldec's natural and ungimmicky live recording. Karajan, with the same orchestra on Deutsche Grammophon, is more luminous and reverential, but he is jinxed by flat, dry recorded sound. Harnoncourt may startle purist ears, but it is an undeniably engaging performance.