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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 5 in B-flat (1876) [77:07]
Orchestre National de France/Lovro von Matacic
rec. concert, Théâtre du Champs-Élysées, May 1979
NAÏVE V5000 [77:07] 
Experience Classicsonline

In this 1979 performance, Lovro von Matacic faces much the same problem as did Bernard Haitink in his concert Mahler Sixth with the same orchestra (V4937): how to forge a plausible performance with a miscast orchestra. It's not a matter of indifferent or spotty discipline - in that respect, the Orchestre National actually improves on its French predecessors - but rather that the players seem uncomfortable, or unfamiliar, with the appropriate style and sound for the music. Von Matacic was an experienced, energetic Brucknerian - he also recorded this symphony in the studio, with the Czech Philharmonic (Supraphon) but here he has to work hard to move his sometimes balky forces.

Steady, spacious bass pizzicatos set the right tone for the first movement. The following brass chorales have a bright, small-bore sound rather than a broad Germanic one; but they're well-balanced, and sound more "present" than the muffled answering tuttis! The conductor keeps the tutti at 3:50 moving in tempo, but it sounds ungainly. The solo woodwinds sound delicious in the barer textures of the second theme-group -- indeed, the woodwind playing is luminous throughout. The unmarked ritard at 7:33, while not a bad idea, sounds a bit careful. The big attack at 12:29 hangs fire, and that at 13:07 sounds unfocused -- it's as if the middles of the chords were missing. von Matacic hurtles into the tutti at 15:13 with litheness; but the second group's return, beginning at 15:48, turns sluggish, and the winding down at 17:56 is again stiff. The conductor recaptures some momentum at 18:42, but he begins hurtling forward from 19:02 through the coda, producing an exciting finish but dissipating some of the movement's hard-earned power. 

At the start of the Adagio, von Matacic has the usual problem: after the strings have established a triplet pulse, the oboe's duplet melody inevitably sounds stiff -- only Wand, in his Berlin concert recording (RCA), somehow overcomes this. Perhaps von Matacic's initial tempo is marginally too slow: after 1:38 the upper and lower strings seem on the verge of coming unstuck, and the clarinet triplets at 1:57 sound like duplets. At 2:38, the string sound is big and heartfelt, the basses perhaps too insistent. There's nobility and grandeur in the aspiring passage at 5:01, as well as some co-ordination problems, threatening ensemble, after 5:42. The tutti at 7:33 is stiff, but von Matacic draws a nice sense of mystery in the sparser textures at 10:02 and 12:06, where the woodwind blend and attack are uniformly excellent. Unfortunately, the slow buildup to the climax, beginning at 14:52, is deadly note-spinning, one damned beat at a time, with no sense of the long, arching phrases. The trombones, at least, restore some of the lost nobility at 16:07. 

The Scherzo begins precipitately - it's the sort of impulsive miscalculation that might well occur in concert - and while it settles down shortly, the playing remains nervous. The punctuating chords at 0:33 are soggy, and there's a fair amount of iffy co-ordination: the passage at 1:30, recurring at 4:36, with all those entrances on the off beats, is particularly untidy. Once again, it's the lighter textures - at 1:45, 2:28, and in the Trio - that go best, with a pleasing delicacy, and the Trio's end has a nice rustic flavor, though the Scherzo recap once again grows excitable. 

The Finale is a case of swings and roundabouts, alternating moments of insight with wasted opportunities, well-considered details with smudged and uncertain ones. The bold, resonant bass attack on the fugue at 1:40, matched by the upper strings on their entries, is impressive, but none of the parts maintain the same crispness as they continue. The second subject's ease and lightness (2:49) are appropriate, but the harmonic shift at 4:28 is too matter-of-fact. The brass chorale at 6:36 is imposing, but the upper strings' response is insecure, and the trombones supporting the trumpet at 7:36 sound a bit wheezy - and so forth. von Matacic infuses the movement with enough energy that it's effective overall, but too much of it is devoted to just getting through. 

This isn't a basic library choice, though von Matacic's occasional insights are worth studying. The glorious Wand/Berlin performance remains the pick among commercial accounts. 

Stephen Francis Vasta




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