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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 5 (1876)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim
Rec November 1991, Philharmonie, Berlin
WARNER ELATUS 2564 61173-2 [71.50]

Another compelling Bruckner performance from Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. He is one of the leading Bruckner conductors of our time, of course, and his expertise and understanding are such that his performances are always authoritative and compelling. This one, of the epic Fifth Symphony, is no exception in that regard, while the standard of the recorded sound maintains the excellent qualities of the preceding issues in the series.

That said, this performance of the Fifth is somewhat more volatile, even a little wayward, in comparison with Barenboimís other interpretations. That is because he sees the music that way, and there is no doubt that the symphony is strong enough, both architecturally and emotionally to take such a reading. The quieter passages really do have a pianissimo dynamic when there is one listed in the score, whereas the climaxes are overwhelming in their power. The approach is therefore clear from the outset, as the opening paragraph releases a tutti explosion that sets the standard for the whole performance.

One advantage of this powerful emotional commitment is that the musicís symphonic momentum can be compelling in its release, and so it proves in the first movement. The danger is that continuity of line might be undermined, though there is little danger of longueurs and vulgarity with a masterly Bruckner conductor like Barenboim in charge. Does the symphony necessarily have to maintain the dignity of a symphonic overview of tempo and line. There is room for more than one view of a great symphony, and by that token the discerning music lover can accommodate more than one performance of a masterpiece as great as the Fifth Symphony. In any case, how does one choose between exponents as convincing as Herbert von Karajan (DG), Günter Wand (BMG-RCA) and Barenboim?

The highlight of the slow movement is the glorious release of eloquent string music that develops the principal theme. This is surely a high point even among Brucknerís many inspirational summits. On the other hand, the scherzo is all pointed rhythmic accenting, delivered with much sensitivity and skill by the Berlin Philharmonic.

Yet for all these abundant strengths, it is on the finale that judgements will ultimately rest. Surely Bruckner wanted to show an intellectual show of strength in this extraordinary and large-scale movement, with its fusion of sonata, chorale and fugue. Again Barenboim does not hold back from delivering a committed and sometimes volatile emotional response. But with playing and recording as good as this the result is compelling, and the performance is one that all lovers of the great symphonic composer must hear.

Bruckner himself was too ill to be present when Franz Schalk conducted the premiere at Graz in 1894, but he would surely have been pleased with the passionate commitment shown here by Barenboim and his Berlin orchestra.

Terry Barfoot


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