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CD: Crotchet


Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major (original version) (1875/6) [79:04]
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/Jaap van Zweden
rec. Netherlands Radio Studio, MCO, Hilversum, 25-28 June, 2007
EXTON OVCL00305 [41:12 + 37:52]
Experience Classicsonline

This is my first acquaintance with Jaap van Zweden’s gradually unfolding Bruckner cycle for Exton, and most reviews of earlier releases seem fairly positive (see Terry Barfoot's review of Symphony 4). He’s recording it with Japanese technicians at Netherlands Radio in Hilversum, a brave move given that one of the world’s great Bruckner orchestras is just down the road in Amsterdam. Mind you, he knows all about the Concertgebouw, given he was their youngest leader at 19 and played under some of the great modern conductors. He seems to bring accumulated experience to bear in this latest recording of a truly massive score, but the results for me are mixed.
The sleeve trumpets ‘original version’, but in truth I couldn’t see or hear much difference from my Eulenberg Nowak score, unless my ears simply aren’t keen enough. The liner-notes don’t even mention this point, so one can only assume that the revisions were tiny details of texture or orchestration. The immediate impression one gets with Zweden’s performance is that it is going to be slow. This is not always a problem in Bruckner, as many other conductors have proved, but with this symphony I don’t think it helps the cause. If you are the sort who gets frustrated with the anti-climactic stop/start nature of some of Bruckner’s symphonic movements – and they are particularly apparent in this work – then you really need a firm grip on proceedings and, at least in my view, a decent forward momentum.
What I got here was a feeling of episodic meandering, of enjoying the great moments at the expense of the bigger picture. The one rival recording I had to hand just happened to be the 1991 Concertgebouw under Riccardo Chailly, and the comparison was cruel. Chailly clips around five minutes overall off Zweden’s timing, and that’s quite a lot in Bruckner. Considering the two scherzos are virtually identical, the savings come in the three other movements, notably the finale, and at every turn I preferred the Italian’s approach. Zweden’s opening movement has mystery aplenty in that slow, march-like pizzicato string line, but when we get to the main allegro, the tension sags. The big climaxes are impressive, with decent weight and sonority from the brass, but the Concertgebouw’s playing is, overall, in a different league. The cruelly exposed string line around 3:30-in highlights this, and where the Concertgebouw are comfortable, effortless, soaring, Zweden’s orchestra are rather thin and ordinary.
Zweden’s general approach suits the adagio, where we may be quite happy for long, slow indulgence, but even here Chailly’s extra tautness pays dividends. The scherzos are, as mentioned, remarkably similar, though the Concertgebouw brass is something else.
The finale is one of Bruckner’s most mammoth creations, complex in its structure and as ambitious as anything in his output, with double fugues and chorales all integrated into what one writer calls ‘effectively a summation of Austro-German music’. Decent as Zweden is – and there are deeply impressive moments, such as his handling of the opening quotations from earlier movements – he simply can’t match the majesty and scale of his rival. The Decca engineers give Chailly real state-of-the-art audio quality and though I expected at least as good from a modern Japanese team, the truth is Zweden’s recorded sound is, to my ears, a little unfocused and over-warm. I could only sample this in two channel stereo, so maybe the mixing process favours multi-channel SACD. The performance is also split annoyingly over two discs because of the timings, though it is priced as one. The Chailly is unavailable as a single disc at present, but there is plenty of mid-price competition that would make me think twice about paying full for this new Exton, most notably the classic Dresden/Sinopoli on DG or Welser-Möst and the LPO on budget EMI. If you are collecting the Zweden cycle, you may well be used to his broad approach and need no incentive to buy, but if you are looking to acquaint yourself with this big, often unwieldy work for the first time, you will find more convincing versions elsewhere.
Tony Haywood


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