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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major (1878 Version Ed. Nowak)
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy
rec. 13 April 1965, Town Hall, Philadelphia, ADD stereo
SONY CLASSICS SBK48160 [72:38]

I find this Fifth to be a rather odd and disappointing recording. The recorded sound is extraordinarily fine for a recording fifty years old and the Philadelphia orchestra plays superbly, so for a while the lush string tone and golden brass flatter to deceive; furthermore, there is tension a-plenty but then realisation dawns during Ormandy’s straightforward, cut-and-dried introduction, which serves warning of his approach: notes are cut off sharp, almost staccato in style. More doubts creep in as the movement unfolds and the listener, hearing more fragmentary phrasing, comes to realise that there is little acknowledgement here of the grandeur, mystery or Innigkeit inherent in any sensitive rendering of the music – qualities which I hope and expect to hear in any successful recording of this enigmatic symphony. This result is typical of Ormandy in non-interventionist mode, the default position of a conductor who could be wonderful but also produced some recordings that suggest that he simply recorded too much. The coda is similarly shallow, sounding simply hurried and perfunctory, not in the least climactic.

For some, this refusal to “fuss” with the score and the emphasis upon “keeping things moving” and “just play what’s in the score” are welcome antidotes to ponderous, over-reverential approaches or those which draw too much attention to the conductor as opposed to the composer; for others, “no-nonsense” simply equates “no animation”. I am personally open to a variety of ways with Bruckner but that tolerance of interpretative diversity does not embrace the acceptance of a dutiful run-through which largely eschews the vertical dimension. Tempi in all four movements are uniformly swift and comparison with my favoured interpretations by such as Eichhorn on Capriccio or Karajan on DG reveals that Ormandy never really lets the music breathe.

I lose all patience with the pizzicato opening bars of the Adagio, unfeelingly plonked out like the plodding footfall of a patrolling policemen; there is nary a hint of lilt or charm, nor is the Gesangsperiode melody permitted any grace; the speed is right, the feeling isn’t. The Scherzo is similarly driven and graceless. The Finale is rather better but again perfunctory of phrasing and the requisite patient build-up is eschewed in favour of a kind of episodic restlessness. What should be great brass chorales are fortissimo blares devoid of numinosity and the fugues strut woodenly and limp. Ormandy was never especially renowned in Bruckner in any case, and a similarly bland and competent Fourth Symphony in the same series tends to confirm my lukewarm impression of him as Brucknerian, as much as I admire him in other things.

Ralph Moore