Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major (ed. Nowak) (1877 rev. 1878)
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
rec. Philharmonie, Munich 12 February 2010
BR KLASSIK 900109 [75:43]

Throughout his distinguished career Bernard Haitink has been a noted conductor of Bruckner, and his Bruckner recordings have always been regarded as among the finest available. His work with what was for so long the orchestra readily associated with him - the Amsterdam Concertgebouw - means that the recordings he made with them decades ago remain points of reference for all Brucknerians. Therefore this new recording from Munich, recorded live last season, holds a special interest.

There is no question that Haitink knows and loves this music. He has a strong overall view of this extended symphony’s structure, which in turn allows the ebb and flow of the emotional characteristics to make their full impact. It is in the slow movement that interpretations of the Fifth Symphony seem to vary the most, and here Haitink is both flowing and spontaneous. His performing time of just over 16 minutes contrasts sharply, for example, with Karajan’s with the Berlin Philharmonic (DG 415 985-2) of more than 21 minutes. It is a tribute to Bruckner’s mastery that in performance either of these approaches will give the impression that the music could not possibly be otherwise. Perhaps Haitink’s approach does miss something of Bruckner’s depth of spirituality in this movement, but on the other hand the flowing line does achieve compensations of its own. Perhaps the important point is that a great symphony is always greater than any one performance of it.

The recording is taken from a live concert and has all the special character that the occasion generates. The recorded sound is truthful and generous in both dynamic range and sonority, while equally important is that the Munich audience is well behaved - would that it were always so. This is the orchestra’s own record label and this issue is somewhat unusual in being new rather than drawn from an extensive archive of radio broadcasts. They are, after all, a radio orchestra and as such they will inevitably have access to an interesting archive.

The booklet presentation is adequate rather than inspiring, with half of it devoted to full page pictures and advertising. The notes are by Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs, the co-editor of the Bruckner Complete Edition, Vienna.

The playing of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra is very fine, with rightly powerful climaxes and some beautiful quiet passages. The solo contributions, such as the clarinet in the early stages of the finale, are suitably distinguished. The recorded sound is always a crucial factor in Bruckner, as is the acoustic in a live performance. For the latter, the dynamic range is good, while the sound itself is capable of accommodating the naturally wide range of sonorities without problems.

In the outer movements Haitink’s concern for structural clarity is never forced or unnatural, and the musical line is articulated with the utmost conviction. If there are to be caveats they lie in the direction of power and weight, not so much of sound but of portentous significance, in which regard both Karajan (details above) and Günter Wand (RCA Red Seal 74321 845902) offer rather more. But Haitink is always convincing and the return of the principal theme as the symphony’s ultimate goal is undoubtedly the satisfying point of arrival that Bruckner intended it should be.

Terry Barfoot

Haitink has a strong overall view of the symphony’s structure, which in turn allows the ebb and flow of the emotional characteristics to make their full impact.