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S & H International Concert Review

Bruckner: Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, (Original edition, 1875-76), The Philadelphia Orchestra, Wolfgang Sawallisch, conductor, Carnegie Hall, New York City, January 13, 2003 (BH)

There was something inspiring seeing Wolfgang Sawallisch, now 80 years old, controlling Bruckner’s vast Fifth Symphony with minimal movements, yet yielding maximal musical excitement. In noticeable contrast to the hyperactive school of conducting favored by some (and I like both approaches), just a small wave of Sawallisch’s left hand produced a huge swell of tone in the Philadelphia Orchestra’s unparalleled string section.

The stealthy pizzicatos that open the work sounded almost like raindrops, with a delicacy and accuracy that grabbed attention immediately, helped by an audience that was absolutely quiet. The movement lasts about twenty minutes, but somehow the time seemed to speed by as Sawallisch gradually assembled the disparate components – more of those pizzicatos, as well as ringing octaves and huge chorales – into a resounding whole.

The second movement, the softly meditative "Adagio", also begins with a slow pizzicato introduction, followed by a sighing theme in the woodwinds that gently travels through the entire orchestra. Sawallisch made sure that the slight syncopations – flowing woodwinds gliding over the strings – were absolutely clear and rhythmically precise. Meanwhile, in some heavenly solos, the orchestra’s principal oboe, Richard Woodhams, produced some of the loveliest, most ruminative playing one could want.

The "Scherzo" uses the same opening melodic line as the slow movement, but considerably speeded up, and Sawallisch made it smoke and dance. Monumental is not the same as plodding, as some seem to think. Sawallisch brought out all the rich contrast between the quiet openings of the phrases and their massive endings, the latter with the Philadelphia brass thundering down gloriously.

Much of the final movement is a huge fugue, with a lengthy section comprised of a recurring dotted rhythm that probably drives some listeners mad. But in Sawallisch’s view, the logic of the repetitions, coupled with their increasing frenzy, only paved the way for the triumphant apotheosis. And what a finale! In the final minutes, Bruckner unfurls the brass section in a magnificent, unabashedly joyous chorale, and the Philadelphia players only seemed to gain strength for the blazing finish.

The evening was hardly sold out, and I suspect the culprit is the composer, rather than Sawallisch or the orchestra. Bruckner can be deceptively difficult to bring off, with long phrases and huge block chords that sound miserable if not in tune. Like some of the contemporary minimalists – say, Steve Reich and Terry Riley – Bruckner shares an interest in tiny units that are subjected to sometimes minute changes over a long time span, resulting in a whole that is ultimately more substantial than it might have seemed at first. It’s also unfortunate that Bruckner’s work has a reputation for being leaden and monotonous, since in spiritual hands like those of Sawallisch, the sound has a unique sense of light and space. Like most of his symphonies, Bruckner’s Fifth vaults those who are patient to some higher ecstatic state, and Sawallisch must be counted as one of the few conductors today who are up for the task.

Bruce Hodges




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