Though Haitink has had two permanent engagements since his 25-year tenure with the Concertgebouw — he took over the Dresden Staatskapelle after Giussepe Sinopoli's premature and tragic death, and he's now superintending the Chicago Symphony while the orchestra searches for a new Music Director--he's mostly played the role of elder statesman, a welcome and honored guest in such venues as Berlin, Vienna, London, Boston, and Chicago. During this period, the conductor has managed to keep a busy recording schedule, revisiting for the second (and sometimes for the third) time most of his core repertory: Beethoven and Brahms cycles with the London Symphony, Mahler and Bruckner symphonies with both the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras. At least some of these performances seemed to suggest waning powers, a stolidity and diffidence very much at odds with the naturalness that was Haitink's strongest suit with the Concertgebow. This new Bruckner Seventh represents a satisfying return to form.
Not surprisingly, this is Haitink's third recording of the symphony. His first two recordings came close to the beginning and at the very end of his association with the Concertgebouw, and they are very different. The first, from the 60's, favors brisk tempos, lean sonorities, and an emotional directness reminiscent of Eduard Van Beinum, the conductor who preceded him in Amsterdam. The second, from the late 70's, is more traditionally weighty and reverential, with broad tempos and dark textures. The new version combines the best qualities of those earlier recordings, striking a near perfect balance between transparency and gravitas. It is, moreover, as well balanced and natural-sounding a Bruckner Seventh as I've ever heard.
It might seem to be damning this performance with feint praise by calling it straightforward and unmannered. Certainly there are more personal interpretations of the score. For the uncompromising Furtwangler, the music suggests titanic struggle, if not tragedy. At daringly spacious tempos, Celibidache and Sanderling both give us a sense of the music's timelessness, its spiritual grandeur. In their very different ways, Carlo Maria Giulini and Herbert Von Karajan chart a passage through light and shade that begins in doubt and ends in rapture.
If Haitink's approach is more self-effacing, the depth of his understanding and love are never in doubt. His attention to detail and sure-handed grasp of the work's imposing architecture carry the listener from strength to strength. He's especially adept in marking transitions, giving the music a flowing, graceful sense of purpose. There's also a disarming simplicity and suppleness to his phrasing, and the big moments have an unaffected nobility that is deeply stirring. Of course, it's no small part of Haitink's success that he has in front of him one of our greatest orchestras playing with both virtuosity and heart. Given that it's the Chicago Symphony we're talking about here, it's customary to begin with the contributions of its famous brass section, and indeed they cover themselves in glory. Listen to the reverential hush that introduces the glorious melody in the Adagio, or to the effortless power they project in the climaxes. But every department of the orchestra shines in this radiant performance. By any standard, this is playing of extraordinary sensitivity and authority. I've been attending CSO concerts for thirty years, and I think the orchestra has never sounded better than it does today.
The CSO has come late to the business of issuing their own releases, but given this example, they're certainly going about it in the right way. The producer is James Mallinson, no stranger to the setting or to the orchestra, having recorded several of Solti's Mahler performances for London. The sound he achieves here is remarkable: spacious and detailed with a deep and convincing soundstage. I had no trouble imagining myself in a first balcony seat in the orchestra's refurbished acoustic. In fact, I've never heard the CSO more vividly or realistically recorded, not even in the glory days of their association with Richard Mohr and Lewis Layton, the duo who produced many of Fritz Reiner's spectacular performances for RCA.
As I've said, there is no want of worthy performances of the Bruckner Seventh, but the present issue makes a special claim given Haitink's inspired leadership, the orchestra's thrilling playing, and the vivid, involving sound. If you're in the market for a new Bruckner Seventh (or even if you're not), this is the one to get.