I have to thank my good friend Savio for reigniting my interest in this CD and for that matter this grossly underrated Brucknerian, Lovro von Matačić. I came back to this B7 recording just because of a conversation with Savio yesterday: he called me asking for my opinion of this recording because he was lately taken to HQ-CD issued by Columbia Japan. Within the first two batches of these HQ-CDs, two Bruckner symphony recordings are included: this one, and B4 by Blomstedt and Staatskapelle Dresden.
I've always had a personal fondness for the Czech PO because of their special strings and woodwinds sonority. Matačić has recorded B5, 7 & 9 with Czech PO, and this B7 is one of the finest on record. The only other conductor who has recorded more Bruckner symphonies with Czech PO is Gerd Albrecht, with B4, 7-8 for Pony Canyon, and B5 & 6 for Exton. However, Matačić's B7 occupies a special position in my heart.
There are many loveable qualities in this recording. The first to strike me is his rhythmic stability and drive, which goes hand in hand with a natural flow of music. That is not to say that his rhythm is welded on rigid steel, far from it, but there exists nice and gentle rubato which leads to the second nicety of prudent expression of passion and ethos. The orchestral playing is first-rate. I'm also amazed at the degree of transparency Matačić brought to his orchestral palette. The details are all clearly audible there. That may have something to do with the Albert Gutmann edition (1885) he used, which contains a little more "ornamentations" in the orchestration compared with the Haas or Nowak editions, but checking with the Nowak study scores just shows that how meticulous Matačić caressed this music, which brings Sinopoli to my mind.
The felicitous orchestral sonority is consistent with that of Czech PO that I love, and here reinforced by the transparent treatment is all the better. The strings are silky albeit without the sheen of those of VPO, but beautiful in a way of itself. The rich basses should attract many hi-fi buffs, particularly the pizzicato of the double basses which sound so springy. The woodwinds, especially the flute here, are lovely.
I was filled with awe that the exposition of the first movement was so full of bass, almost like a bass continuo. The recording belies its age, as around 18'42" the tympani rumble in the background is clearly audible when the theme reappears. The development is treated like chamber music, which is so delightful.
Matačić is excellent in climaxes and transitions. The buildup to the climax in the Adagio is filled with a strong undercurrent that is wave-like. After the climax the serenity is so beautiful and that is also true in the transition from the flute tune supported by bass pizzicato to the horn tune (19'50" - 20'03"). This is here after the climax that creates a special moment in my mind -- it is so Celibidache. I'll come back to that later. The rhythmic energy is strong in the Scherzo but the trio with much warmth. The finale may be the only blemish in the whole diamond with the brass chorales a little raucous, but what musical energy is released in these chorales which are dotted with some nice rallentando!
In the end, when I listened to the whole symphony yet once again, I was telling myself half-jokingly that it is exactly late Celibidache style with a "normalized" tempo, with the transparency, details, dynamic range, buildup to those climaxes and serenity in the slow passages. But wait a minute. As this recording was made in 1967, well before Celibidache developed his unmistakable late style, should I rather say Celi's most-loved style is just Matačić's with a much broadened tempo? That may bring me much trouble from Celi fans, but it is really fruit for thought. To be fair, what Matačić ultimately lacks, with his more "down to earth" approach, is what Celi does best in providing his listeners with ample space to imagine and search for their own otherworlds -- in a sense the lure of Zen Buddhism.