> Bruckner Symphonies 4,5 Haitink [JQ]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No 4 in E flat major "Romantic" (Haas edition)* [68’40"]
Symphony No 5 in B flat major (Nowak edition)** [77’16"]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Bernard Haitink
Recorded in the Grosser Saal, Musikverein, Vienna in *February 1985 and ** December 1988
PHILIPS DUO 470 537-2 [145’ 56"]


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In the 1960s and 1970s Bernard Haitink made a complete cycle of the Bruckner symphonies with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Subsequently he recorded several of the symphonies again with another orchestra with a great Bruckner tradition, the Vienna Philharmonic. It is from that second series of recordings that this pair of reissues stems.

Both these performances seem to me to demonstrate performance and interpretation of Bruckner at the very highest level. I have always been a great admirer of Haitink in Bruckner (and in so much else), feeling that his respect for the score and his feeling for line and for structure put him in the front rank of interpreters of this composer. These recordings strongly confirm me in that view.

Listeners should be warned that the performance of the Fourth has an extremely wide dynamic range. This means that the opening string tremolandi are very quiet indeed. However, this adds to the sense of heightened anticipation and I must say at the outset that both symphonies benefit from very good recorded sound. The Phillips engineers have produced a sound of great richness, depth and detail, using to the full the atmospheric acoustics of the Musikverein.

Haitink has the priceless ability to think in long musical paragraphs and to lay these out cogently for the listener. He also evinces a masterly control of dynamics and an unerring sense of pulse and pace. At no time in this reading of the Fourth (nor in the Fifth, for that matter) did I feel that his speeds were anything other than completely natural and every change of tempo is handled smoothly. He is faithful to every detail in the score and this approach is anything but pedantic; rather it allows us to appreciate Bruckner’s symphonic logic to the full.

I’m sure Haitink would be the first to say that the excellence of this account of the Fourth owes much to the peerless playing of the VPO. The strings are beautifully rich, the woodwind mellow and the brass golden toned. The grandeur of their playing and of Haitink’s conception is consistently apparent but can be sampled, for example, in the passage beginning at 10’ 56" in the first movement (disc 1, track 1). A little later in the same movement, the rapt duet between flute and horn (13’21") shows the depth of feeling behind this performance.

The slow movement is, for the most part, more relaxed than its predecessor and is beautifully judged by Haitink, with yet more gorgeous playing from the VPO (such as the short passage at 7’46" where there is a lovely nut-brown richness to the cello tone.) In this movement in particular the string section shows great refinement. There is power too when Bruckner calls for it and the great climax rings out majestically (13’14")

The hunting horns in the scherzo really call to mind the thrill of the chase. This main material is most exciting yet the meno mosso sections are paced to perfection. The trio (where the hunters take a breather?) is phrased with great delicacy and affection.

The beginning of the finale (track 4 to 3’12") is mightily impressive, with a palpable sense of suspense at the very start. Thereafter the argument is presented cogently and skilfully. As has been the case throughout, the sonority of the VPO brass is glorious (try the passage from 11’27"); they play with tremendous power but never sound to be at full stretch and you sense they always have something in reserve. Eventually, at 18’47" Haitink conjures a supremely mysterious start to the coda which gradually unfolds with utter magnificence, crowning a superb achievement by Haitink and his players.

This performance held my attention from start to finish. It is magnificent and one of the very finest I have ever heard. It can only be ranked with the very greatest recorded Fourths such as Karl Böhm’s 1973 recording (also with the VPO) and the 1998 performance by Günter Wand with the Berlin Philharmonic.

The Fourth is, perhaps, Bruckner’s most approachable symphony. I have always found the Fifth a harder nut to crack. If a performance is to succeed it is absolutely essential that the conductor has a firm sense of structure, especially in the colossal finale with its twin fugues. Perhaps it is in his ability to hold together such complex movements and thereby to make sense of them for the listener that Haitink’s credentials as a great Brucknerian are most impressively displayed.

Here the fire and drama of the first movement’s main allegro are conveyed to the full. I like also the sense of repose in such passages as the rising solo wind phrases (disc 2, track 1, 6’20") but even in such episodes Haitink never lets the tension sag and, of course, he handles the huge climaxes superbly, ensuring they make their full effect without ever being overdone.

The adagio unfolds easily and naturally. Among many incidental beauties along the way, the richness and sheen of the VPO string sound at letter B in the score (track 2 between 2’13" and 4’14") is something at which to marvel. When the movement’s final peroration is reached at figure H (track 2, 12’42") it arrives with a sense of complete inevitability. The VPO reserve some of their most eloquent playing for the last few minutes of this movement.

The scherzo is very good but if I pass over it quickly it’s because the finale is the biggest test of all. Suffice it to say that, aided and abetted by some sumptuous playing by the VPO, Haitink passes this test with flying colours. The massive tuttis (such as the one at track 4, 5’57") are delivered with monumental power but, crucially, there's a wealth of refined playing to savour in the many quieter passages. This is, in fact, a very subtle account of this huge movement. A notable example of this refinement occurs at figure H where the great chorale appears for the first time (track 4, 7’22"). The chorale itself is delivered with burnished pomp by the brass but then it is answered by string phrases which are so exalted that we might be listening to Parsifal.

In the two fugues every strand is crystal clear so, of course, these sections make complete sense. All in all, this is a thrilling and compelling account of what can seem a complex and forbidding movement and in Haitink’s sure hands it lasts not a minute too long. As the end comes in sight the tutti at letter Z (22’23") is impressive enough but the final apotheosis of the chorale (23’12") is overwhelming. It’s as if all the Gods were entering Valhalla in procession. From there on to the end all is majesty.

I’ve not mentioned any comparisons. This is deliberate. Quite simply, I think this is the finest recording of the Fifth I have ever heard (eclipsing, for example, Haitink’s earlier account with the Concertgebouw, fine though that was). This reading seems to me to be in a class of its own and it represents a prodigious achievement.

The reissue of this peerless Fifth is a cause for rejoicing. When it comes coupled with a superb Fourth and at a most advantageous price its claims on the collector’s attentions are surely irresistible. Excellent sound for both recordings and good succinct notes simply enhance the package still further. It is a privilege to review such a distinguished issue and I recommend it with the utmost enthusiasm.

John Quinn

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