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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major (Nowak Edition, 1878) [78.51]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Stanislaw Skrowaczewski
rec: live, 31 October 2015 Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London

Once again the partnership of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) under Stanisław Skrowaczewski, a renowned Bruckner specialist, drew me to this recording. In the period 1984/91 I attended concerts conducted by maestro Skrowaczewski during his tenure as principal conductor of the Hallé. He has returned to Manchester to conduct the Hallé a number of times since to considerable acclaim.

Born in Lwów, Poland in 1923 Skrowaczewski, aged 92, is acclaimed as the oldest working major conductor. Highly regarded as a composer too, I especially admire his Concerto for Orchestra (1985/86, rev.1988). During his lengthy and illustrious career he has conducted all of the world’s most renowned orchestras and he still maintains a conducting schedule.

It was only in the last years of his life that Bruckner received the recognition that he deserved. True public success did not arrive for Bruckner until his Symphony No. 7 was premièred in Leipzig under Arthur Nikisch. A check on the Bruckner discography reveals that the Symphony No. 5 has fared well in the recording studio. However, from my experience concert performances of the Symphony No. 5 together with the Symphony No. 6 tend to fall sharply behind an insatiable audience appetite for the 4th, 7th, 8th and 9th Symphonies.

Bruckner began composing his Symphony No. 5 in B flat major in February 1875 completing it the following May. The composer 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 Bruckner, who used his own unofficial version of the score that included a cut down finale. Bruckner didn’t hear the performance as he was too ill to attend. The first performance that matched Bruckner’s own autograph manuscript of the score took place almost forty years after the composer’s death, at Munich in 1935, with Siegmund von Hausegger conducting the Munich Philharmonic. Bruckner described the B flat major score as “my contrapuntal masterpiece” and also his “‘Fantastic’ symphony”. At various times the symphony has been given descriptive names including Tragic, Faith and Pizzicato.

This London Philharmonic Orchestra release under maestro Skrowaczewski is a live recording from 31 October 2015 at Royal Festival Hall, London. Skrowaczewski is using the established 1878 edition of the score as published by Leopold Nowak which largely represents Bruckner’s original intentions. Throughout, the assured Skrowaczewski demonstrates a deep understanding and resolute control of the symphonic structure. The unified playing is of the highest calibre, perceptive and with gripping intensity. The London brass sound full, making dark threatening roars, the woodwind is highly assured and the strings have a splendid silvery timbre. Skrowaczewski is on his finest form holding together the complexities of the opening movement as Bruckner permeates the writing 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 Skrowaczewski controls with certainty the unremitting waves of gathering potency that threaten to explode. The Scherzo sees an impressive release of pent-up energy in the manner of an erupting volcano. Skrowaczewski is striking in his handling of the sweepingly broad dynamic range of the music, punctuated with tempo changes and tension infused pauses. Expertly played by the LPO, the arrival of the Ländler-like passage with its crisp Alpine feel comes as a welcome surprise. The key movement of the score, the Finale, is also the longest. Playful woodwind in the opening measures comes as a bolt from the blue; maybe the composer is a having some kind of private joke. The outstanding chorale is striking, played marvellously by the brass, accompanied by serene strings. Soon the music increases in weight and intensity, with passages of rapt romanticism. With real assurance Skrowaczewski honours the extremes of tempi and the inevitable pauses. He sustains the emotional tension and, if anything, allows the potency to increase. In the concluding measures the bellowing brass gains total victory, bringing the score to a brisk conclusion. The clear recorded sound is cool and steely, which comes at the expense of some orchestral colour and warmth which I would have personally preferred.

Of the rival accounts of the Symphony No. 5, my first choice is Giuseppe Sinopoli’s recording with the Staatskapelle Dresden in 1999, made two years before his untimely death. With playing of the highest calibre under Sinopoli’s captivating conducting the tempi and phrasing feel perfectly judged. Recorded live in the Semperoper, Dresden, this account benefits from wonderful sound quality on Deutsche Grammophon. Another recording worthy of consideration is by Günter Wand with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Wand’s live recording from 1996 is superbly played with style, intensity and conviction. Recorded in one of the greatest concert venues the sound quality from the Philharmonie, Berlin is most satisfying on RCA Red Seal. I also admire the committed and compelling account from Eugen Jochum conducting the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks in 1958. Though nearly sixty years old now, the sound from Herkulessaal, Munich wears its age exceptionally well on Deutsche Grammophon.

The reputation of Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony is served marvellously by this inspirational live performance from the LPO under Stanislaw Skrowaczewski which is one of finest recordings I have encountered.

Michael Cookson



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