Smooth and easy going–fitting descriptors, were I discussing a performance of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. But this is not what you want in a Bruckner symphony (unless, that is, you prefer your Bruckner in the background). Donald Runnicles’ carefully crafted reading does emphasize the music’s serenity–the beauteous opening theme sings prayerfully (as rendered by the warm-toned strings of the BBC Scottish Symphony), but its repetition lacks the dynamic contrast that makes it take flight, and thereby lift the spirit. The conductor’s restraint marks the cardinal flaw of the entire performance. You don’t have to listen very far into Karajan’s, Walter’s, Wand’s, or Chailly’s recordings to find the critical edge that’s missing here. The first movement’s climaxes fall short of the splendor usually found in this work. Most disappointing is the great climax in the Adagio, where Runnicles opts for the cymbals and timpani–a choice that paradoxically lessens the moment’s impact.
This is unfortunate because Runnicles chooses very good tempos throughout. The first movement flows at an alert pace, while the Adagio proceeds without the dragging heaviness some conductors impose on it. But as Libor Pesek, and more recently Ivan Fischer, have shown, you can have both swiftness and sinew in Bruckner. To be fair, Runnicles imbues the remaining moments with these same qualities, but the Scherzo is short on menace (which you hear in abundance with Walter), while the Finale lacks mystery.
The good news is that the BBC Scottish Symphony proves adept at Bruckner–the aforementioned strings, combined with solid, if not particularly imposing brass and lilting winds. The recording places the orchestra distantly in what sounds like a rather large hall–something that may factor into the music’s muted dynamic impact. Overall, this is a nice but unmemorable Bruckner 7th. Get one of the listed alternatives for a performance that you’ll remember and replay.