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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major [84:03]
Staatskapelle Dresden/Christian Thielemann
rec. Semperoper, Dresden, 8-9 September 2013
Video direction: Henning Kasten
Region Code: A,B,C
Picture format: 1080i 16:9
Sound: PCM Stereo; DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround Sound
C MAJOR Blu-ray 717904 [89:00]

Christian Thielemann seems determined that the symphonies of Bruckner should play a key role in his programming as principal conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden. Indeed, we learn from the booklet that he intends to open each season of his tenure with one of the composer’s symphonies. So in 2012 he made his debut as principal with the Seventh Symphony (review) and this present account of the Fifth opened his second season. The day before the Dresden performances from which this film is compiled Thielemann and the orchestra had played the work at the Lucerne Festival and my colleague, John Rhodes, reviewing the concert for MusicWeb International Seen and Heard, was not entirely convinced, feeling that some parts of the outer movements were too expansive. I should say that I came across this review only after I had completed my work listening to this Dresden performance.

I must say that I found Thielemann’s performance convincing but it is true that he takes longer over it than a number of other conductors I’ve experienced. Haitink, for instance, took 77:16 in his 1988 Vienna recording (review). Klemperer’s 1967 recording plays for 79:29 (review) and the version by GŁnter Wand that I own — there are several in the catalogue — is a live 1989 performance that is a whole ten minutes quicker that this Thielemann rendition: on that occasion Wand took just 74:01. So Thielemann is spacious in his approach but he held my attention throughout. That’s not always the case, I find, in this symphony, much though I admire Bruckner’s music.

Before a note has been sounded the conductor had me favourably disposed because he divides his violins left and right. The cellos are seated to the left of the first violins and the violas are between the cellos and the second violins. The double basses are not in their customary position: Thielemann places them to his left, behind the firsts. So we have the twin benefits of antiphonal violins and the heart of the string choir, the violas and celli, placed in the centre. I approve.

The long introduction to the first movement is spaciously conceived and expertly controlled: the tempo may be unhurried but here and elsewhere this conductor demonstrates a very fine sense of the line. He holds the main allegro on a steady rein and in this, the main body of the movement, Thielemann shows a flexible though convincing approach to tempi. This is a movement that demands great concentration from the conductor and players and the necessary focus is very evident here. The playing of the Staatskapelle Dresden is hugely impressive, not least the wide dynamic range.

The Adagio is patiently shaped by Thielemann; he has an aristocratic bearing on the podium and that quality is evident in the music-making. Once again the orchestral playing is very fine indeed. It seems to me that the conductor shapes Bruckner’s long paragraphs expertly. The climaxes well up majestically in this majestic traversal and the arrival of each one seems inevitable which, to me, is a hallmark of excellent Bruckner conducting. The scherzo is robust; there’s vigour and excellent use of dynamic contrast. In the trio there’s great delicacy in the playing.

In the introduction to the vast finale Bruckner recalls material from the preceding movements, rather in the manner of Beethoven in his Ninth. Once the Allegro moderato is under way Thielemann holds the structure together well, which is no mean feat. The fugal music is worked out with suitable rigour; here, surely, we hear Bruckner the organist at work. As the work nears its conclusion Thielemann and his orchestra bring out the grandeur in the music but never so much as flirt with a descent into overblown rhetoric; in these concluding pages the Dresden brass, who have been impressive throughout the work, make a superb contribution.

This strikes me as a distinguished account of Bruckner’s Fifth. It’s a work of his that I admire rather than love but I appreciated this superbly played performance very much. The sound is very good and the camera-work is expert. I don’t know if Thielemann uses the Haas or Nowak edition of the score. So far as I am aware the differences between the two are not great but it would have been nice if that rather important information had been included in the booklet.

John Quinn