Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No.5 in B flat Major (1877) [62:05]
Residentie Orchestra, The Hague/Neeme Järvi
rec. Dr Anton Philipszaal, The Hague, 17-19 September 2009, Stereo/Surround, DDD/DSD
CHANDOS CHSA 5080 [62:05]

There is much about this recording to commend. It offers good audio, a competent and committed orchestra and a scherzo which has a good balance between momentum and gravity. But there’s a problem, and it’s a big one: the whole thing is just too damned fast.

Bruckner wasn’t one for metronome marks, so there is a wide range of different tempi among the recordings available of any one symphony, but at 62:00 Neeme Järvi sets what must be a record. I’m sure he must be trying to make a point, and to his credit his tempi are always rigorously maintained.

Perhaps propulsion and excitement are his goals? The orchestra certainly provide sufficient clarity for the super-fast tuttis of the outer movements to retain their textural definition. And he often holds back at caesuras to give the following entries emphasis.

The greatest loss is to the grandeur of the work. There’s nothing magisterial about Bruckner at this speed, no cathedrals of sound, no ethereal transcendence.

Bruckner loyalists - whom I suspect Järvi is hoping to agitate - are going to have most trouble with the second movement. Even in the absence of metronome marks Bruckner specifies Sehr Langsam. I make the crotchet count at the opening about 80 bpm – that’s fast by anybody’s standards and is about twice the speed of most other recordings. Again the orchestra offers the clarity required to bring out all the details, but they don’t add up to much at this speed.

The scherzo is the one movement in which some sort of sanity is maintained. It’s still fast, but it’s not hell-for-leather. In fact, some of the weightier brass passages come across well. Ratcheting up the tempo one peg seems to keep the orchestra on their toes here. And this is the point at which to admire the SACD audio. Those pp timpani rolls, for example, exist on an entirely different dynamic plane to the rest of the movement, and in the interplay between the solo woodwind and brass the instruments are all elegantly played and magnificently recorded.

The opening of the finale, like the opening of the first movement, is marked adagio, and for the first time in the symphony, Järvi heeds the advice. The introduction to the movement is made up of quotations from earlier in the symphony. At this point, Järvi seems intent on increasing the overall frustration by presenting these themes at the tempos we had been initially expecting, then accelerating back up to his breakneck speed for the main part of the movement. It breaks my heart to listen to the great chorale that crowns this movement reduced to just another up-tempo tutti run-through, and it makes for a sorely disappointing anticlimax to the work.

So what is Neeme Järvi trying to say by bring in Bruckner 5 in at just over an hour? Perhaps he is aiming to provide a corrective to some of the more ponderous readings out there. I can imagine that there are some who lose patience with Wand or Karajan in this repertoire, but I can’t help the feeling that they were both on the right track. There probably is scope for innovation, for an interpretation that tells us something genuinely new about Bruckner’s music, but this certainly is not it.

Gavin Dixon