Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major (1875/76, rev. 1877/87. Nowak Edition) [73:54]
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Marek Janowski
rec. Victoria Hall, Geneva, Switzerland July 2009

True public success did not arrive for Bruckner until his Symphony No. 7 was premièred in Leipzig under Arthur Nikisch. It was only in the last years of his life that he received the recognition that he deserved. A check on the Bruckner discography reveals that the Symphony No. 5 in B flat major has fared well in the recording studio. From my experience however concert performances of the B flat major Symphony together with the Symphony No. 6 in A Major tend to fall behind the insatiable audience appetite for the 4th, 7th, 8th and 9th. In ‘The Complete Guide to Classical Music’ edited David Ewen [Published: Robert Hale, London 1965] the section on Bruckner completely overlooks the B flat major Symphony.

Bruckner began composing the Fifth in February 1875 completing it in the following May. He undertook various adjustments in the period 1877/87; such as the addition of a bass tuba. The première of the score was given in Graz in April 1894 under Franz Schalk, a pupil of the composer, who used his own unofficial version of the score including a cut-down finale. Bruckner didn’t hear the performance as he was too ill to attend. The first performance that matched the autograph manuscript was held at Munich in October 1935, almost forty years after the composer’s death, with Siegmund von Hausegger conducting the Munich Philharmonic.

Bruckner described the B flat major score as “my contrapuntal masterpiece” and also his “‘Fantasticsymphony”. At various times it has been referred to as the ‘Tragic’; the ‘Faith’ and the ‘Pizzicato symphony.

This Pentatone Classics recording was made in June 2009 with Marek Janowski the OSR musical director at their Geneva home. Janowski uses the established version of the score as published by Leopold Nowak which largely reflects Bruckner’s original intentions. It seems that this SACD recording was made in conjunction with a broadcast performance for Swiss radio.

Throughout the Symphony the assured Janowski demonstrates splendid control of structure. He has to be on his finest form to hold together the complexities of the opening movement Introduction. Adagio - Allegro. Bruckner permeates the movement with quiet passages, anxiety-laden pauses, and an underlying slow tempo that more than once threatens to come to an abrupt halt. In the Adagio. Sehr langsam the music rises in unremitting waves of gathering explosive power. The Scherzo marked Molto vivace (schnell) - Trio. Im gleichen Tempo sees an impressive release of pent-up energy in the manner of an erupting volcano. Janowski is impressive with the sweepingly broad dynamic range of the music punctuated with tempo changes and tension-infused pauses. Well performed by the Suisse Romande the arrival of the Ländler-like passage makes for a pleasing episode.

The key movement of the score which is also the longest is the Finale marked Adagio - Allegro moderato. The playful woodwind in the opening measures come as rather a surprise; maybe some kind of private joke. Soon the music increases in weight and intensity with passages of lush romanticism. Janowski resists the temptation to rush and honours the extremes of tempi and the inevitable pauses. Between 7:20-8:26 the thrusting chorale-like brass fanfares are played with splendid restraint releasing only moderate bite. From 14:38 the tension is discharged with a burst of energy taking the speed down to a mere crawl. The delightful Ländler-like motifs on the strings provide a welcome release from the uneasy mood. At 18:20 after another false start the tempo quickens with additional stress and weight only to recover back to the attractive waltz-like figures. The eruption of pent-up energy at 21:00 suggests that the uncertainty has finally been resolved. Janowski makes sure the emotional tension never lessens and if anything the potency increases. In the final measures the bellowing brass gain total victory to bring the score to a brisk conclusion.

Giuseppe Sinopoli recorded the Fifth with the Dresden Staatskapelle in 1999 two years before his untimely death. My copy of this live recording from the Semperoper, Dresden is on Deutsche Grammophon 469 527-2. Under Sinopoli’s inspired conducting the tempi and phrasing feel perfectly judged. I note that Sinopoli takes two minutes longer than Janowski in the Scherzo. With playing of the highest calibre the Dresden brass sound fuller, making a darker and a more threatening roar. The strings have a glorious timbre to match anything I’ve heard recently. I loved the assured woodwind playing too. With commanding grandeur, power and luminosity Sinopoli delivers a wonderfully cogent, exciting and superior interpretation. The smaller details are significant too: I love the way Sinopoli gives Bruckner’s Ländler-style motifs a brisk and crisp Alpine feel.

I also admire the committed and compelling account from Eugen Jochum conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1958. Over fifty years old now the sound from the Hercules Hall, Munich wears its age exceptionally well. I have the Jochum on his 9 disc set of the 9 Bruckner Symphonies on Deutsche Grammophon 429 079-2 (reissue available on 469-810-2).

Another version from my collection and one worthy of consideration is from Günter Wand and the Berlin Philharmonic. Superbly played with style and conviction Wand’s live recording from 1996 is available on RCA 09026 68503-2. One of my favourite concert venues, the sound quality from the Philharmonie, Berlin is most satisfying.

Janowski was recorded in 2009 at the Victoria Hall, Geneva and this hybrid Super Audio CD uses the Direct Stream Digital process. I played the disc on a standard player and was satisfied with the clarity and balance. By comparison the wonderful sound quality of the Sinopoli/Dresden Staatskapelle on DG is in a more elevated league approaching demonstration standard.

Michael Cookson

Janowski demonstrates splendid control of structure.