The Symphony No. 5 provides us with the essence of Bruckner. The fact that the composer never heard the music in performance is an indication of his pioneering and very personal approach to the symphony as an art-form. The work was composed between February 1875 and August 1877, and although it was eventually performed at Graz in 1894, Bruckner was by that time too ill to undertake the journey from his home in Vienna. His career as a composer developed late and enjoyed all too few triumphs, with the result that he was often persuaded by well-meaning friends to rework his symphonies. In this respect the Fifth was lucky; since it lay unperformed for years, revisions by the composer himself were hardly possible.
However, an indication of the nature of the problems Bruckner faced during his lifetime can be understood from what happened at the first performance. The conductor was Franz Schalk, who was a great supporter of the composer. Even so, he made severe cuts in the finale, and deployed additional brass players in the closing stage in order to make a huge effect. In the light of these difficulties it is no wonder that Bruckner regularly suffered from depression, brought on also by financial hardship as well as the failure of so many of his contemporaries to comprehend his artistic aims and achievements. For it was not until 1832 the Fifth Symphony received a performance in the version in which it has originally been written.
However, some of the great Bruckner conductors, and most notably Hans Knappertsbusch, performed the Schalk revision.
The Fifth contains two features by which it differs from the remainder of Bruckner’s symphonies, and which are therefore crucial to its understanding. Both the first movement and the final have slow introductions, while the structure of the finale is a synthesis of sonata form and fugue, while employing also a powerful choral theme. There is eventually a rousing apotheosis built upon the return of the first movement’s principal theme.
Unlike the schedules of our major orchestras, the recorded music catalogue pays appropriate home to this great symphonic composer, and there are many choices for the discerning collector. In that sense the special feature of this new recording on Telarc from Benjamin Zander and the Philharmonia Orchestra is the additional disc, on which the conductor gives a lucid and eloquent introduction to the symphony, replete with music examples. This has a thoughtfully contrived balance between analysis and biographical context, and interestingly it also involves some family history, telling the tale of his father’s love of Bruckner through the dark years of the First World Way, when Zander senior served in the Austrian army on the Russian front. This was at a time when the original edition of the symphony, as played here, was not available.
As for Zander’s performance, the helpful acoustic of the Watford Coliseum makes the Philharmonia Orchestra sound well as a corporate unit. At the same time, the richness of the climaxes is supported by the clarity of the contrapuntal webs that the composer so often weaves; for this symphony combines the elements of counterpoint and harmony more determinedly than any of Bruckner’s compositions, not least in the deliberate combining of chorale and fugue that lies at the conceptual heart of the finale. Perhaps Zander’s concern to obtain textural clarity in these contrapuntal lines leads to a certain lack of atmosphere; but each performance must take its own paths in these matters and there is more than one way to interpret a great symphony.
The accompanying booklet contains a remarkable little document that Zander has invented in order to liken the construction of the symphony to that of a great cathedral, or of the monastery church of St Florian that was so central to Bruckner as man and artist. All very interesting, though whether the listener will follow the exact line of argument is another matter.
While the orchestra plays well enough, the tutti sound lacks the incandescent atmosphere of the finest performances. The strings might be more radiant, though the brass feature resonantly. For comparison, try Günter Wand’s recording with the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra (RCA:review; review).
Zander adopts tempi that always seem appropriate, with a sensitive flexibility that brings an ebb and flow to the symphonic journey, while also serving longer term issues. While this may not a top recommendation for a single version of the work, it is hugely satisfying and full of interest, and worth acquiring for the bonus disc that offers so many insights into the workings of this great symphony.
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