The Berlin Philharmonic's Direct-to-Disc Bruckner Symphony #7 Box Set

Last May 11th 2019 guest conductor Bernard Haitink conducted the BPO in his final performance with the orchestra. At the time plans were made to record the performance of Bruckner's 7th symphony "Direct-to-Disc" neither the orchestra nor the conductor knew it would be their last collaboration. Haitink announced his retirement shortly after the concert.

As with the Brahms cycle conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, Emil Berliner Studios' Rainer Maillard and crew wheeled over to the Berlin Philharmonie Hall the studio's Neumann VMS-80 lathe and recorded the live performance "Direct-to-Disc", here using 3 Josephson microphones up front and a pair for the hall sound. Mic preamps were all tube-based and fed a vintage vacuum tube-based mixer running directly into the lathe. According to Mr. Mailard, The five microphone, 9 capsule array consisted of one C700S stereo-mic in the center and two C722s (custom built for EBS) left and right, plus a pair of C617 room mics. The mic preamps were Siemens V72s. The mixer was a vintage 12 channel Siemens V76.

I was honored when label manager and assistant project manager Timo Hagemeister invited me to contribute annotation for this box set. He sent a test pressing late last summer of the three-sided set (side four features signatures of all orchestra members plus Haitink's) and I set about absorbing the symphony and the recording and deciding what I should write. Was I somewhat intimidated by the task? Damn right I was! I went into this unfamiliar with Bruckner's music. I came away awed by the 7th Symphony, which, as it turns out, was his first great success after years of trying and flopping. He began composing it when he was 57.

At first, the 7th sounds as if it repeatedly grinds to a halt each time the composer gets the main theme going. Beethoven's symphonies are like rock and roll compared to Bruckner's 7th. After a few plays you can easily hum melodic elements of the 3rd, 5th, 7th and 9th (especially the 5th and 9th, which everyone knows). No wonder Beethoven is the "go-to" symphonic set for music appreciation beginner courses. It took many repeat plays to "get" Bruckner's majestic thematic thread to "set" in my head, but once it "took", it was difficult getting it out. The box set's annotation includes a musicologist's "play by play" analysis but, while helpful, the music's emotional content doesn't require that kind of understanding. The devoutly religious composer evokes awe, terror, mystery, longing, serenity and at the majestic conclusion of the first movement a sense of dazzling wonderment that feels as if you've reached, after a long climb, the top of the mountain from where you can see the heretofore hidden other side. You're left almost breathless.

From the production's description you can pretty much figure out that the recording is transparent, three-dimensional, "you are there" quality. The Berlin Philharmonie is one of the first open, non-reverberant concert hall spaces, designed (as I discovered in my annotation research) with the "modern" 60's era home stereo listener in mind. So, don't expect to experience a big reverberant space because that's not the hall sound. Instead, it's surprisingly direct and even somewhat dry, but as intended, despite the minimal miking, you hear everything all sublimely and effortlessly balanced and rendered in three-dimensional space not limited by recording tape or Pro-Tools digital sampling and processing. As I've found playing this "Rorschach Test" of a recording on various systems, if it sounds too bright, it's your system! When everything's in balance, you are in the concert hall (not in an artificially created multi-miked non-existent space, where perhaps there's more "detail" due to twenty odd microphones strewn throughout the hall). Also, the black backgrounds and unrestrained dynamics mean that if you start with the volume too high, when the big explosive sections arrive, they will be unnaturally LOUD. This recording requires some experience to correctly play back. Live concerts, especially if you're not seated "on top" of the orchestra, are never as loud as home playback, which for some first time concert hall attendees leads to disappointment. This recording, properly played back, will not disappoint! I played the first movement at RMAF to a packed PS Audio room and all in attendance sat entranced throughout.

The box set's packaging and presentation go beyond what's usually considered "above and beyond". The box itself is handsome and includes Haitink's autograph embossed on the cover. There's a large, glossy photo of the lathe in the control room high atop the hall, a copy of the program handed out to concert goers and a ticket from the performance, 4th row, center. The hard-bound book and annotation with photos will keep you busy for a while and provide historical and musical background. Optimal's plating and pressing quality are of the highest order. "Lavish" is the best single word description for the box, limited to 1884 copies (1884 was the year the symphony debuted in Leipzig on December 30th) and available now for order ($218 plus shipping) on the Berlin Philharmonic Recordings website. If you click on the link and can't find a way to order, return tomorrow. I've been told it's either now "live" or will be tomorrow. I was and remain thrilled to have been asked to play even a small part in this historic set. BTW: more than a few people have asked me why I was not at the concert. I was in Europe at the time at EISA in Antwerp, Belgium and so could not attend. After listening to this recording I almost feel as if I'd been there.

Here's the "unboxing" video:

COMMENTS
Paul Boudreau's picture

Just ordered one, looking forward to becoming familiar with Bruckner as well.

Mendo's picture

That Paul? Does my username resonate?

volvic's picture

All the other great ones are gone, must order.

Pietro111's picture

.. No Volvic, not "all the other great"...
the german conductor Günther Herbig, a pupil of Hermann Abendroth is still alive ( 89 yo ); he was to me the last of the great german romantic conductors...
Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to be invited by great orchestras anymore. What a mistake, what a pitty

volvic's picture

I do like it and he was if I remember the principal conductor with the TSO many many moons ago and Baltimore if I am not mistaken. Anyone who studied under the great Abendroth another great Bruknerian, can't be too shabby. I believe he studied under Karajan as well but not for too long. It is true I have not seen or heard of him for many years perhaps he doesn't tour anymore, if you hadn't mentioned him I would have totally forgotten about him. A true pity indeed.

Tom L's picture

...and hasn't worked in the USA for some years, but he apparently still conducts as "the Main Invited Conductor of the Orquesta Filarmónica de Gran Canaria (OFCG) in Spain".

He's also Conductor Laureate of the Taiwan National Symphony Orchestra.

parsifalcor's picture

He is great! I played under him with the Columbus Symphony when I was a student at IU 10 years ago.

Last time I played Bruckner 7 was with Manfred Honeck in 2012 - simply unforgettable!

PeterPani's picture

Thank you for the info. Haitink and Bruckner is difficult to beat.

TGR's picture

I ordered it as well. This is my second order from the BPO - the first was back in February when I ordered the new Pathetique LP conducted by Petrenko, the new music director. A quality experience - showed up in less than two weeks, superbly packaged, and it is a quality production. Sadly, though, a digital recording. Very excited to hear how an all-analog production captures the sound at the Philharmonie. Heard the BPO live there in 2013, conducted by Andris Nelsons - quite the open air barn with almost as much seating space the orchestra as in front - the opposite of Vienna's Musickvereinsaal, where I have also attended a concert.

RinziRadio's picture

I have been waiting for this to appear ever since you played the test pressing at the event in Santa Monica last year. I've heard Haitink conduct several Bruckner symphonies live, including the 7th with the Vienna Philharmonic, and there is really no one quite like him in this repertoire. (Those interested to explore further should make a beeline for his complete vinyl sets of the Bruckner and Mahler symphonies made with the Concertgebouw for Philips). I cannot wait to hear this -- and am really looking forward to reading your comments. The BPO are releasing fabulous material on their own label. I've picked up the Beethoven and Sibelius symphonies with Rattle, plus Petrenko's scorching Tchaikovsky 6th - all on vinyl -and they are all spectacular sounding. There are also some superb CD/SACD boxes, especially the John Adams and Furtwangler sets. Michael, it's always great to read/hear you talking about classical records, even though you do not consider yourself "learned" in this regard: you have your own, completely valid perspective. Still hoping you will get around to compiling your Top Classical Reissues to own.......

Paul Boudreau's picture

Just curious: Are “the Beethoven and Sibelius symphonies with Rattle” analogue recordings?

warpig's picture

Sorry but where can this be purchased. A link would be nice. Hope I am not breaking the rules.

warpig's picture
Naun's picture

I had the great good fortune to hear Haitink conduct this symphony four times, in different halls with different orchestras. Most memorable were a 2017 performance at the Concertgebouw and one last September at his farewell London appearance with the Vienna Philharmonic. This LP set is probably the closest I'll come to hearing him conduct the piece live again.

It's interesting to hear you talk about the sound of the Philharmonie in Berlin and I would be interested to hear your thoughts about other venues. I've often thought a good hall serves the music in much the way a good recording or a good sound system does. I live in Boston and one of the pleasures of listening to records is how recognizable the sound of Symphony Hall is in old recordings like the Living Stereos. The Concertgebouw in Amsterdam is special. It has a lambent quality which can sound mushy in some recordings, but heard live you can hear absolutely everything and it's a uniquely immersive experience.

Lazer's picture

4 days ago. Haven’t received a confirmation email. When I go to the account I created on their website ,the status under my orders says “pending”. My card hasn’t been charged. Some communication would be nice. Why is my order pending?

Jenn's picture

....with the Concertgebouw.

tonyd57's picture

I was privledged enough to attend Haitink's last performance at the Proms last year, where he conducted Beethoven's 4th Piano Concerto and Bruckner's 7th with the VPO. An unforgettable night, joy tinged with the sadness that I would not see him conduct again.

I ordered this release and am looking forward to taking it for a spin. One thing that I don't understand about the direct to disc process is what happens to the music when the engineers have to change the disc? Are there multiple discs being cut at the time out of synch with each other and they splice them together somehow? Does anybody know?

Michael Fremer's picture
The first movement takes up side one (22:10), the second movement takes up side 2 (22:06). The 3rd and 4th movements are on side 3 (11:06 and 13:41), which at 24 minutes pushed the LP side length envelope but the cutting engineer does an excellent job and the side doesn't get too close to the label and levels are fine. I assume it was done as on previous D2Ds with the BPO: there's a red light invisible to the audience but that the conductor can see. The first side lacquer is ready to go and the conductor signals to the booth either visually or some other way, that he's about to begin. The lathe operator begins the cut and lets the conductor know via however they are communicating and the symphony begins. When the movement ends, the team in the booth quickly changes the lacquer. No doubt the pause is longer than usual but not too long. It's also possible that the audience was told in advance about this. When the lacquer is read to go, the communication resumes between the booth and the conductor. This is repeated a third time for the final two movements. As you can imagine this is a nerve racking process where many things can go wrong. In this case everything went correctly!
zbyte's picture

Hi Michael, thank you for the heads up on Bruckner, would you care to comment on the Sibelius Symphonies conducted by Simon Rattle?
Thanks

audiotom's picture

You should have the music playing softly in the background

I am still upset I didn’t splurge on the BPh Brahms direct to disc recording

Mike77's picture

So I just got delivery of a few BPH vinyls. Must say that the 24 bit transfered recordings on to vinyl are very fine but a bit held back and things seem to be held in too much dynamic control. Anyway full analogue still rules specially D2D.

vinylrules's picture

Earlier this week I pulled the trigger. Damn you Michael Fremer! :)

Mike77's picture

How ever not to happy with the slight inner grove dist on side C...

Naun's picture

Mike77 (or anyone else): have you received your copy? I ordered mine two weeks ago along with a second title. I received a shipping notification for both titles but received only the second one. The Berlin Philharmonic assures me that this is because of a delay and not a fulfillment error, but if the Bruckner title is shipping I think I'll need to follow up with them.

Naun's picture

*anyone else in North America

Paul Boudreau's picture

...and “lavish” is right!

skronksonic's picture

... and it sounds phenomenal. Bummed it arrived with a slight crease/dent on the outside of the box (grrr...) despite the very secure packing ... but the first spin of Disc 1 Side A ... I don't think I've ever heard a vinyl recording that sounds so full and alive.

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