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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896) Symphony No. 5 (“Original edition”, 1876-1878 Nowak?)
Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra / Stanislaw Skrowaczewski
rec. live. 18 April 2008, Suntory Hall, Tokyo DENON COCQ-85385 [71:16]
Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony has variously been nicknamed the Church of Faith, Pizzicato, the Chorale, the Medieval and the Tragic – although the aptness of the latter is questionable, given the prevailing sense of victory which pervades the finale. Spiritual triumph is surely the theme and Skrowaczewski certainly embraces that here in this live recording from 2008 in Tokyo, emphasising from the very opening the mystery, weight and grandeur of the music, qualities enhanced by the detailed immediacy in the recording, which is rich in bass resonance. The pizzicato violins and flutes are given just the right prominence; indeed, clarity of exposition and strict control of tempi and dynamics combine with the utmost musicality of phrasing. There is no sense here of listening to a conductor who has slowed down in his declining years.
The recording is on the brisk side compared with several famous recordings by such as Abendroth, Eichhorn, Sawallisch, Karajan and Thielemann, but not excessively so. It is close to Welser-Möst’s in drive and momentum, with, like Ivor Bolton, a particularly fast Scherzo, and innocent of Furtwängler’s rare error of simply pressing too hard and delivering too driven, erratic and nervy a performance. The timings here are similar to those of Gerd Schaller’s superb 2013 recording (19:41; 16:27; 13:01; 23:40 =72:52) and Ivor Bolton (19:17 16:10 12:15 22:43 = 70:45) with the Mozarteum, both of which are readings on the lighter side and preferred by Bruckner aficionados who favour a more propulsive approach as opposed to the “monumental”.
I appreciate that reviewers attract opprobrium by making crude comparisons of timings between recordings, but the difference between this live recording from Tokyo and Skrowaczewski’s later 2015 LPO release, also live, is surely significant. The latter is slower all round by a total of seven minutes, whereas, allowing for the inclusion of applause at the end of the fourth movement of the Denon recording, the timings for his 1996 recording on Arte Nova are virtually the same as in Tokyo. I was interested to read elsewhere that another reviewer found that Saarbrücken studio recording greatly superior to the live LPO one; it might be that Skrowaczewski slowed down as he aged but my own experience of him in the concert hall shortly before his death in February 2017 at 93 does not support that conjecture. I have not heard the LPO release but am given to understand that it is comparatively disappointing, not least for reasons of recorded sound and the fact that the orchestra was not on best form. However, comparison with the Arte Nova recording reveals that, good as it is, it is recorded at a considerably lower level and both the sound and the orchestral playing are fuller and richer for Denon, especially in the immediacy of the contributions from the timpani and the brass.
But is the Adagio taken too fast? For some, especially those habituated to Karajan, Celibidache or Thielemann, this will undoubtedly be the case. There is a more of a determined purposefulness to Skrowaczewski’s pacing than we hear in Karajan’s weary trudge; for me, the ideal is encountered in Eichhorn’s and Sawallisch’s middle way but there is no gainsaying the coherence and consistency of Skrowaczewski’s approach here; it works – and full credit to the Japanese orchestra’s strings for the sumptuous lyricism of their playing. The movement rises to a magnificently rousing conclusion, the brass suitably prominent and hieratic.
The Scherzo is fast and fiercely staccato. The marking “hervortretend” (bold, striking, prominent) for the second violins indicates when they should be brought to the fore, but Skrowaczewski does this for whichever instrumental group is to carry the burden of the score or provide emotional underlining.
The fugal, contrapuntal and chorale elements of the finale are again wonderfully articulated; clarity and momentum are the hallmarks of Skrowaczewski’s interpretation. The conclusion is riveting and the audience, previously inaudible throughout, erupts.
[This review was commissioned by, and reproduced by kind permission of, The Bruckner Journal.]