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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 5 in E flat major (ed. Nowak) [73:19]
London Symphony Orchestra/Lance Friedel
rec. 24-25 January 2014, All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London, England.
MSR CLASSICS MS1600 [73:19]

Lance Friedel has been making some fine noises in recent years with Nielsen on MSR and Foerster and Comedy Overtures on Naxos. This, however, is his first foray into Bruckner on recordings. With the Rolls-Royce sound of the London Symphony Orchestra at his disposal you can expect good things at the very least.

Sounding magnificent in SACD format, this is certainly a disc to savour as a hi-fi experience. The brass section comes off best in terms of balance. This is both exciting and just a little frustrating in the first movement and elsewhere when certain details from woodwinds and strings tend to be over-obscured. This may or may not be an accurate picture of what to expect in the concert hall but a little tweaking might have given a little help at the margins – just a shade more string presence when everything is kicking off would probably have done the trick. The acoustic of All Hallows Church suits Bruckner well, being spacious and welcoming without turning the sound into something too cavernous. The balance puts a nice amount of distance between us and the orchestral sections without losing too much detail. Friedel also manages the fortissimos with restraint in the Adagio second movement.

The Scherzo has plenty of forward momentum and no lack of Viennese swagger when it comes to its waltz-feel passages. The storm bursts are very effective in this recording, as are the moments of calm in between, with plenty of atmosphere and tension being built and dispersed as required of the score. The Finale is very fine indeed, the brass once again impressive and richly recorded. The pacing of the wide variety of tempi is well-judged. There are plenty of gorgeous moments helped by the big acoustic, such as at around 7:00, where the brass section calls out ff and is echoed by the strings pp. We’re only missing some Mussorgsky-like bells to be transported all the way to St Petersburg, if only for a few seconds. Perhaps a pluck more forward momentum in those swathes of rumpty-tumpty rhythms in the middle might have been desirable but some of these transitions will never be Bruckner’s finest hour.

There’s no shortage of Bruckner Fifth Symphony recordings around, and my handy home reference is an elderly classic, Concertgebouw conducted by Haitink on Philips from 1971. John Quinn rates the 1988 Vienna Philharmonic recording even higher (review). Haitink is a touch more expansive in terms of timings but his performance wins in terms of intensity. Moving back to Friedel after Haitink you seem to lose a layer of meaning and dramatic intent. It’s all still very impressive and monumental but doesn’t quite have that inner life that can set everything on fire when you least expect it. There’s a big difference between slowness and that sheer sense of sustain which gives import to both the moment and the whole. There are those octaves from the clarinet in the first few bars of the Finale for instance. Haitink has them separated – as indicated, staccato, but not short to the point at which there is hardly any tone and the notes fall rather dead as happens with Friedel. The shaping of the phrasing in the violins in those tricky contrapuntal sections later on is also far more keenly observed and brought out. This creates a clarity of line not as apparent from Friedel. These are technical qualities you have to observe in Bach, and in this case Bruckner is no different. From 1:42 the quality of something Mahlerian is achieved from Friedel – rather more gruff than some. Haitink doesn’t avoid Teutonic weight, but his articulation and dynamic weighting ultimately delivers more impact and much wider contrasts later on. Philippe Herreweghe in his Harmonia Mundi recording with the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées is another who manages to bring out the counterpoint more effectively. He uses better defined articulation and accents, all of which are marked in the score, but not always strictly observed by Friedel.

I’m being a bit picky, but with competition at the highest level there are always going to be contentious points. It’s a wisp – a barely perceptible layer of extra meaning and spiritual involvement that I’m missing here. It's so hard to pin down that I’m almost loth to bring it up. I can’t imagine anyone being disappointed with this state-of-the-art SACD recording of a superb orchestra on good form and in a very well suited acoustic. Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony is hard to get ‘right’, and I have to admit to being highly impressed by this production. Some CDs you know will vanish into a cupboard and only see the light of day when moving house. This is one I’d rather have more easily to hand, and I’ll certainly be bringing it out when testing new audio equipment.

Dominy Clements