For Günter Wand (1912-2002) Bruckner was something of a speciality in the last half of his long, illustrious career. What makes his performances of this composer’s music so distinguished is his concern for the spirit and structure of the music. He went back to the urtext whenever he could or, failing that, to the original. Here he uses the Robert Haas version of 1935, which is the original version based on the autograph score.
I was quite surprised to learn that Wand came to the Fifth Symphony relatively late on in his career. He was 62 before he felt ready to conduct this towering masterpiece. The year 1974 saw the release of a recording of the Fifth with the West German Radio Symphony Orchestra in Cologne. That recording took the world by storm, heralding his Indian summer as a conductor. A complete Bruckner cycle with the same forces followed, together with one by Schubert shortly after. We also have his live Bruckner recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic on RCA. Finally, there are the filmed performances of Bruckner concerts from the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival, of which this is one. Here the orchestra is the NDR Sinfonieorchester, of which Wand became conductor at the age of seventy. They eventually elected him conductor emeritus for life. He worked with them until shortly before his death in 2002.
Looking frail when this concert was recorded in 1998, the eighty-six year old is escorted on and off the stage. This must have been an eagerly anticipated event judging by the welcome the audience give him, and by the applause and standing ovation at the end. I could not see any empty seats. The atmosphere throughout is palpable. Yet, surprisingly, unlike Klemperer who, in his later years, opted to sit to conduct, Wand chooses to stand all the way through this long, taxing and immense work. His stamina for a man in his late eighties is awe inspiring.
Often, I’m disappointed with the camera-work on DVDs. Some images are dwelt on too long, others are annoyingly fleeting. Here the cameramen have struck a satisfactory balance. Cameras are strategically placed and changes coincide logically with the score. There are many close-ups of the conductor’s expressive facial features, with the mood of the music reflected in his expressions. I love the way his hands coax the orchestra to elicit the orchestral detail in the music.
The orchestra obviously have great respect for Wand and give their all. The string sound is warm, with first and second violins to the conductor’s left, and cellos to the right. The brass section is exceptionally fine, and in the last movement double fugue and chorale passages, they ring out with burnished authority.
This is a monumental performance. Wand has an intelligent grasp of the architecture of the score. Despite the rather episodic nature of the work, he holds the music together in one coherent whole. It’s certainly a performance I would return to, as it provides a compelling visual document of a great Brucknerian.
Masterwork Index: Symphony 5