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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major (1878)
Tapiola Sinfonietta/Mario Venzago
rec. 10-12 March 2014, Tapiola Hall, Espoo, Finland
CPO 777 616-2 [60:00]

With this recording of the Fifth Symphony Mario Venzago completes his nomadic Bruckner cycle recorded for CPO. He returns to the Tapiola Sinfonietta, with whom he recorded Symphonies Nos. 0 and 1 (review), while other performances in the series have taken in Berne (3 and 6, review; 4 and 7, review; 9, 777, 787-2), Berlin (8, 777 6921-2) and Gateshead (2, review). Orchestral standards gave been high throughout, even though some of the ensembles have hardly been Bruckner regulars either on record or in the concert hall. To some extent that mirrors the conductor’s determination to bring freshness to his interpretations, and it is certainly no bad thing if the intention is to avoid complacency or a slavish approach to traditional wisdoms.

Few composers offer as many challenges as Bruckner when it comes to performing editions and musicological decisions. If this leads us to expect Venzago to opt for first thoughts rather than revisions, this has not necessarily been the case. The Eighth Symphony was done in the 1890 revision for example.

There are fewer issues of this kind with Symphony No. 5, since Bruckner himself did not revise it and was prevented by illness from attending the premiere at Graz in 1894, more than fifteen years after its composition. An alternative version, largely the work of the Schalk brothers, was championed a generation ago by Hans Knappertsbusch among others, but is hardly heard today.

What then of this performance? Having recorded the complete cycle of the symphonies, there can be no doubt about the conductor’s dedication to the cause. However, this interpretation decidedly cannot be commended save to those who are themselves dedicated enough to Bruckner to want to hear an alternative view. Whatever the intentions were, the achievement here is surely to make this the fastest among recorded performances, coming in at exactly 60 minutes. Compare that with the following representative sample, identified by conductor: Georg Tintner (Naxos 8.453452) 77 minutes; Herbert von Karajan (DG 4159852) 81 minutes; Günter Wand (Hänssler Profil PH 06012) 76 minutes; Nikolaus Harnoncourt (RCA Red Seal 82876 60749 ) 73 minutes and Sergiu Celibidache (EMI 556691 2 - review; review) 87 minutes.

Tempo is not everything, and within any span of time a performance will reflect the ebb and flow, the tension and relaxation of the musical structure and expression. With Venzago’s Fifth, the music always felt as though it was being pushed forward no matter what. There was little of the careful shaping of phrases and paragraphs that mark out a great performance. The playing is fine, some of it distinguished, such as the contribution of the principal horn. However from first movement to finale the general effect is that the music is rushed. I say this even if in some of the alternatives (no names mentioned) the pacing can go the other way and feel extremely broad.

While there is a danger in wishing a great symphony to sound as expected from already known recordings and live performances, my response to this new issue is unequivocal: Venzago misses the sense of awe, majesty and symphonic power that lie at the heart of Bruckner’s vision.

Terry Barfoot