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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony no. 5 in B flat (Haas edition) [87:40]
Munich Philharmonic Orchestra/Sergiu Celibidache
rec. live, 14, 16 January 1993, Philharmonie am Gasteig, Munich
Photocopied complete original booklet
EMI CLASSICS 5566912 [48:03 + 41:50]

I think I am right in saying that Bruckner was not an essential part of Celibidache’s repertoire from the very beginning. Certainly, I know of only two Bruckner performances given in his RAI period from the 1950s through to the beginning of the 1970s: the F minor Mass (Rome 1958) and the ninth symphony (Turin 1969), both extremely fine performances at “normal” tempi. The latter of these is now available on DVD (Opus Arte OA0976D - see review).
As the brilliant if sometimes erratic maverick conductor of his early years grew into a sage and philosopher, there could be cause to regret the passing of the incandescent interpretations of those heady times. On the other hand, it became apparent that he had been destined from the first to be a supreme Brucknerian, even if it took him half a career to find this out.
The present late statement on the Fifth gives the lie to the idea that the way to disguise Brucknerian length is to take faster tempi. Somehow, if the music is given its just space, it becomes not formless and meandering, but taut and concise. The passage from the severe baroque-inspired opening through the tragic yet ethereal expanses of the slow movement and the ferociously pounding Scherzo/Lšndler to the thundering denouement, is an arduous and variegated one. Yet every theme, every idea, every period is allowed full time to make its point, with no trace of sentimentality or affectionate lingering. There are no wasted notes. As each section comes to an end we realize that the musical argument has been taken a stage further. Paragraph by paragraph, the symphony traverses its 88-minute ocean with the inevitability and unstoppability of a transatlantic liner. When the end is reached, we feel that the whole work has been unfolded in a single span, yet an entire universe seems to lie between that gruff opening and the closing chorale.
When listening to Celibidache’s performance of Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony (see review) I wondered if I would gradually find his slow tempi so incident-packed that I would come to find other performances hasty and superficial. With Schumann I am still not so sure. As I said above, the sage and philosopher of later years was not always an improvement on his earlier self. With Bruckner, though, I should think there’s a very real risk that, once this performance has got inside you, it will spoil you for all others. That is really the only reason I can think of for not getting this timeless monument to two great musicians – Bruckner and Celibidache.
Christopher Howell


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