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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Bruckner V Reloaded
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major (1875–1876) [87:45]
Hermann NITSCH (b.1938)
Für Anton Bruckner [22:41]
European Philharmonic Orchestra/Peter Jan Marthé
Hermann Nitsch (organ)
rec. live 17 August 2007, Stiftsbasilika, St Florian, Upper Austria.
PREISER PR90746 [67:20 + 42:51]

For three years running Peter Jan Marthé performed his own free reconstruction of a different Bruckner symphony in the St Florian Stiftsbasilika and each was then issued on CD as “Bruckner Reloaded”, complete with a garish cover and notes replete with baffling psychobabble. This Fifth was the last in that brief series owing to funding issues with the excellent European Philharmonic Orchestra – originally the "Junge Österreichische Philharmonie"; for all the conductor’s eccentricity, the results were musically both absorbing and entertaining, even if some of Marthé’s additions to, and adaptations of, the scores were questionable. Just as Rémy Ballot and Gerd Schaller have in recent years managed to assemble superb orchestras for their own series of Bruckner recordings from mostly younger Austrian and German musicians, Marthé’s orchestra here makes a glorious noise.

Whereas for the Third Marthé performed his own conflation of three versions, and for the Ninth he contributed his own free composition of a finale, here in the Fifth he is relatively non-interventionist except for two factors: tempi so broad that he rivals his mentor Celibidache for leisureliness, and the startling addition of cymbals and triangle to manufacture and enhance a premature and superfluous climax to the first appearance of the second theme in the Adagio. Marthé justifies this as being analogous to the climaxes in the Adagios of the 7th and 8th Symphonies but it sounds inappropriate to most ears, including mine. As if Marthé wants to emphasise his determination to be controversial, the percussive intrusions are then twice repeated in the finale.

That apart, there is no denying that Marthé does indeed “get” Bruckner and a performance like this goes some way towards vindicating his bizarre claim to be channelling the spirit of the composer. There is nothing outlandish here beyond the features mentioned above and Marthé’s slow, but intense, beat, and I find this recording to be thoroughly musical; indeed, some of those who attended the concert relate how they were profoundly moved and sincerely believed it to be the best live account they had ever heard.

This is grand, monumental Bruckner playing and the sound complements the interpretation: it is rich, full, slightly cushioned and reverberant. Despite his showman proclivities, there is nothing vulgar or obvious about Marthé’s direction – with the exception, perhaps of the cymbal-triangle embellishments; his progress through Bruckner’s carefully wrought journey into light is otherwise restrained and mesmeric. After the majestic introduction, the sudden acceleration is far from ponderous and the Gesangsperiode steals in with a rapt, magical intensity. This is not the taut, urgent, Fifth we hear from such as Furtwängler through to Welser-Móst, but more in the mode of Abendroth, Eichorn and Thielemann.

The control of the tricky rhythmical patterns in the opening of the Adagio is admirable and the nobilissimo main theme is not milked but allowed to flow sweetly and naturally. The slow, inexorable progress towards Marthé’s manufactured first climax works in the context of his careful control; one does not feel that he is simply showing off and I for one am content – although I know many object. The singing quality of the orchestra’s playing does much to lend legitimacy to his changes.

The best of this performance, however, is heard in the first two movements. The Scherzo is first very heavily accented, emphasising its rustic quality, but Marthé is then very free and fluid with rhythms, speeding up then slowing excessively, conferring a rather erratic, plodding and heavy-handed character upon the music and it is not really to my taste. The Trio, in particular, lacks momentum, but the concluding couple of minutes are undeniably more exciting. The finale is more coherent but decidedly more earthbound than empyrean; somehow, Marthé just misses the cosmic dimension, despite the grandeur of his conception.

In short, despite its positive qualities, the second half of the symphony fails to sustain the momentum, impact and promise of the first.

Of the opening track on this 2 CD set, Hermann Nitsch’s twenty-two minutes of organ improvisation as an homage to Bruckner, I have nothing to say beyond the fact that 1) I am not sure Bruckner would have been flattered 2) I shall not listen to it again. Please look it up on Spotify if you want to know why.

Ralph Moore