One almost damns Deutsche Grammophon for offering new versions of the Bruckner 7th and 9th by the Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan. They are so eloquent, disciplined and sonorous that you are compulsively led to studying alternatives trying to determine if the new ones set a new, and higher, standard in an already rich field.
Any definitive comparisons would match the new Karajan 9th with the old one of about 10 years ago or with, say, the Klemperer 7th of 1961, or - beyond that - the Furtwangler 9th of 1944 or with the post-war Furtwangler performance of the 7th. There is also the new Boehm No. 7 with the Vienna Philharmonic, among others.
These symphonies are long, and 10 or 11 hours of listening to them just for interpretation is but the beginning of breaking the ice.
And so one must depend upon impressions - in this case, very strong ones. The dominant impression is that these new recordings are so smashing that exhaustive analysis would only comfirm this view.
It is no inconsiderable factor that the orchestra in these releases is the Berlin Philharmonic. In the early days, the Philharmonic played little role in the proliferation of Bruckner, but in the last few decades it has seemed the veritable font of Bruckner playing. Listen, if you wonder, to the Furtwangler version of the 7th, on Odeon (STE91 3753/8765 773/878). This is where the hardest dilemma comes for the listener: because the extraordinary Furtwangler performances seems to depend for its eloquence on note values, whereas the eloquence of the Karajan depends very much upon dynamics (the climax of the 7th symphony's 2d movement is breathtakingly calculated - in what is perhaps Bruckner's greatest moment) and, because of dated sound, one will never know if Furtwangler's 25-year-old dynamics were comparable. Even from this evidence, they are close, but how close?
More than any other orchestra, the Philharmonic's sound is right for Bruckner - the utter certainty of the lower brasses, along with the sound of the lower strings, which are more numerous than those of the world's other orchestras.
Two examples of the Berlin sound: 1) the breathlessness with which Karajan's strings move into the coda of the first movement of the 7th - a whispered fragment of musical shorthand that tells you in a few bars that the course toward a musical cataclysm is irreversible; 2) the assurance of the Wagner tuba in the coda of the second movement - the instrument dominates this eulogy to Wagner, a musical equivalent to the great literary eulogies: the passage from Ecclesiasticus: "Let us now praise famous men of fame and our fathers that begat us," or from Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar": "I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him."
This analogy strengthens my feeling that rhetoric is the answer to Bruckner interpretation. In the quintessential last movement of the 9th, just as in the first movements of the 7th, breadth, continuity of mood and intensity seem to me to be the major interpretive elements. Lack of them is a serious stumbling block when the music is taken more literally, as in Boehm. That is the justification for Karajan.
The difference, quite simply, is where the climax comes. In Karajan' 7th it is clearly in the second movement of the work, which is where Bruckner put it, and from which the rest symphony seems anticlimatic.
One feels it might better end right there. As in Schuberts's "Unfinished" symphony, what is there to add?
For the record, the 7th, coupled with the Wagner, is numbered 2707 102 and the 9th, standing alone, is numbered 2530 828.