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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, WAB 105 (1896 Schalk edition)
Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra/Gennady Rozhdestvensky
rec. live, 19 May 2017, Metropolitan Theatre, Tokyo
ALTUS ALT411 [78:21]

Why Rozhdestvensky reverted to performing the widely despised Schalk version of this symphony long after other conductors had converted to either the Haas or Nowak editions and why, in addition, he insisted on such frequently slow tempi as we encounter here are questions to ponder. Given that there are two recordings of performances, one live and studio, from 1984 when he used the Haas edition, I assume that in Tokyo he simply wanted to advocate the virtues of Schalk’s version, just as Gerd Schaller is currently engaged in the interesting project of exploring and presenting the many incarnations of Bruckner’s symphonies including, for example, an especially successful recording of the streamlined Schalk version of the Third Symphony (review)

Nonetheless, even the most forgiving of Brucknerians have balked at Schalk’s depredations; Bruckner did not sanction the five-minute evisceration Schalk made to the double fugue of the finale nor approve his brass, flute and timpani-heavy re-orchestration but at least the climax and coda remain intact and ultimately we must accept and evaluate what is on offer, especially as in my judgement Bruckner’s symphonies are surprisingly tolerant of diverse interpretative stances and can emerge triumphant regardless of the version employed if performed with sufficient skill and conviction.

Recordings of the Schalk version have proved controversial; eminent exponents of it include Knappertsbusch, who barrels through the score in an hour. Personally, for their grip and vigour I still enjoy his 1956 and 1959 accounts with the VPO (studio, early stereo) and the Munich PO (live, mono) respectively. Those performances have their own rationale and integrity even if nuances and shaping are sacrificed to a commitment to providing drive and excitement. The 1956 Decca recording remains my favourite rendering of the Schalk version but Rozhdestvensky here tries to validate it by doing something completely different - and he has a fine Bruckner orchestra at his disposal with which to do it. Two years ago I reviewed Skrowaczewski’s very successful, live 2008 recording on Denon with the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra and remarked upon the excellence of their playing; they are a very fine Bruckner band.

However, Rozhdestvensky’s eccentric and interventionist gamble with speeds does not always pay off; his tactics are to embrace the antithesis of Kna’s approach, and comparison of the two conductors’ overall timings reveal that they diverge by nearly twenty minutes. In many ways, Rozhdestvensky’s manner is closest to that of René Ballot, but he does not have the advantage of the sonority of the abbey of St Florian, the venue here in Tokyo having a rather dead ambience. (Otherwise the sound is clear and faithfully conveys the conductor’s emphatic sighs, grunts and groans as well as the excellence of the orchestral playing; there are very few extraneous noises apart from one peculiarity: a sudden, piercing shriek at 24:51, presumably from a flute, and the anomaly noted below.) There are times when all momentum seems lost and stasis prevails; then the music suddenly surges forward, in the manner of Jochum which annoys some Brucknerians (including me). The level of indulgence here will, I suspect, intrigue, delight and irk listeners in equal measure; for me, much of it is bizarre and even elephantine, over-weighting and stretching the structure beyond coherence. Not even Ballot, using the Nowak edition, can extend the first movement to 26 minutes; his timing is a mere 23:30 and he keeps a much steadier hand on the tiller, thereby maintaining inner tension. With Ballot, the contrasts between speeds occur logically between sections of the music, whereas with Rozhdestvensky, they happen randomly within developments, to disconcerting effect.

The Adagio, however, avoids those erratic changes of pace is thus much more of a piece, permitting its serene melody to expand via careful, graded reiteration and bloom very satisfyingly. The Scherzo, however, is heavy-handed, over-doing the peasant Ländler galumphing; Ballot, at a more deliberate pace nonetheless invests it with much more charm and lilt whereas Rozhdestvensky once again defaults to the pulling about of tempi which mars his first movement and doesn’t generate many thrills. The finale is immediately blighted by the first squawked interjection by a trumpet rather than a clarinet, the conductor noisily giving a cue and some clattering from a dropped object – and is generally marred by the way the Schalk instrumentation falls ungratefully on an ear accustomed to Bruckner’s own sparer, more skilful orchestration; the flute fluttering above the strings is always something of a distraction, too. Finally, the truncation of Bruckner’s most Bachian and complex contrapuntal exercise is unfortunate, but much of its grandeur still emerges intact, as Rozhdestvensky gradually, even imperceptibly, lets the orchestra off the leash and revels in the somewhat clogged intricacies of Schalk’s over-elaboration of the textures. The climax, jangling triangles, blaring brass and all, is undoubtedly stirring – in a pleasurably vulgar way…

On balance, if I am going to listen to the Schalk version, I still prefer Knappertsbusch’s impatient, headlong rush to Rozhdestvensky’ idiosyncrasies, despite the edgy stereo on Decca compared with the modern digital sound here, but there are still incidental beauties and points of interest to be found in this unusual live performance on the Altus label.

Ralph Moore

(This review reproduced here by kind permission of The Bruckner Journal.)

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