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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major (Nowak Edition, 1878)
London Philharmonic Orchestra; Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (conductor)
rec. live, 31 October 2015, Royal Festival Hall, London

Stanislaw Skrowaczewski is eminent as a Bruckner specialist and his recording of the complete symphonies, with the Saarbrucken Radio Symphony Orchestra (now the German Radio Philharmonic Orchestra), has long been one of the more considerable complete sets of these works [review ~ review]. This new recording on the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s label gives us a chance both to hear Skrowaczewski in Bruckner with an orchestra other than the Saarbrucken and as an update as to Skrowaczewski’s ideas on Bruckner in his 92nd year.

While the Fifth is not the most popular of Bruckner’s symphonies, it is, except for the Eighth, perhaps the most monumental. It is also notable for the composer’s frequent use of pizzicato. The symphony begins with a slow introduction (unique in the mature symphonies) that starts almost imperceptibly before the intrusion of a striking upward phase that we will hear many times in the symphony. Skrowaczewski makes both the gradual appearance of the introduction and the appearance of the first theme almost breathtaking. The remainder of the exposition betrays the conductor’s trademark deliberateness and this occasionally detracts from the overall flow. Skrowaczewski’s approach to the development section emphasizes the lyrical elements, which is a somewhat original, and fruitful, choice. Although the final section is again a little too deliberate, Skrowaczewski manages the combination of themes at the end in a masterly fashion.

If plucked strings are prominent in the first movement, they are even more in evidence in the opening of the adagio where they accompany an oboe theme that is both plaintive and hollow-sounding, one of Bruckner’s most ‘modern-sounding’ creations. This is succeeded by a more consoling string theme, but with some of the oboe’s hollow quality remaining. The return of the oboe theme proper, along with memories of the first movement leads to the powerful and imaginative development, which Skrowaczewski leads with great skill and attention to the emotional content inherent in the combination of the two themes. His treatment of the end of the movement with its combination of power and lyricism is also impressive.

The opening of the scherzo is a faster version of the string theme from the adagio. This is treated fragmentally until the arrival of a second, Lšndler-like theme. Skrowaczewski pays great attention to the thematic cross-pollination, with great results. The transition to the Trio section is a masterpiece of Brucknerian tonality, again Lšndler-style, but with a spectral element added, that Skrowaczewski brings out more forcefully than many interpreters, before the scherzo is repeated.

The last movement of the Fifth is frequently described as “monumental” and deservedly so. It combines the composer’s great contrapuntal facility with his equally great mastery of sonata form. The movement begins, after reminiscences of earlier movements, with a surprisingly quirky tune on the clarinet, which is eventually treated fugally on cellos and basses. A lyrical second theme is developed with great beauty, eventually followed by a third theme and then a beautiful chorale. This leads to the highlight of the symphony, a giant double fugue on elements of the chorale and the cello-bass material. Skrowaczewski manipulates all of this material with great skill, producing the required sense of inevitability, although the double fugue could be more forceful. This is the only major drawback to the performance.

The playing of the LPO on this disc is little short of magnificent. All of the contrapuntal lines come through cleanly and the lyrical passages are all one could ask for. The woodwinds are especially fine, both individually and as a group. The strings are occasionally a little dull in sound, but come through in all the contrapuntal passages. The horns, all important in Bruckner, acquit themselves admirably. The playing of the entire ensemble is admirable. In discussing Bruckner, the version performed is always an issue so it should be noted that in this recording Skrowaczewski uses the Nowak version of 1878, which is the usual version used in performing this symphony.

This is a live recording and the sound is somewhat blunted, especially in the strings. The woodwinds fare better and there is really no problem with the brass. In the end, what matters most is Skrowaczewski’s performance, which with the exception noted in the last movement, has to count as one of the best of the five currently on disc.

William Kreindler

Previous review: Michael Cookson