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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major WAB 105 (1878; ed Nowak)
Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra/Tatsuo Shimono
rec. live 24 May 2019, Hiroshima Bunka Gakuen HBG Hall, Japan
BRAIN MUSIC OSBR-36033 [80:46]

The stream of Bruckner recordings from Japan continues unabated; this live performance was recorded at the Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra’s 390th Subscription Concert. The title on the CD here says “Original version” which is presumably just to indicate that it is not the 1896 Schalk edition, as it is the standard Nowak edition which is performed.

I confess to having no data to confirm what is just a subjective impression, but it seems to me that while the superlative quality of the favourite Bruckner symphonies such as nos. 4, 7 and 8 has long been acknowledged, the stock of no. 5 is continually on the rise, increasingly receiving more performances and recordings and, perhaps even more significantly, nominations by Brucknerians as their favourite of all. In a great performance, its cosmic grandeur elevates it to the same level of transcendence as nos. 8 and 9.

It receives a calm, dignified performance here, including a fairly slow Adagio and Scherzo but its timings are not that different from several other celebrated versions in the slower category such as those by Karajan, Eichhorn, Schuricht and Thielemann. Opening with a very measured tread, the introduction unfolds mysteriously, then Shimono injects real pace into the statement of the first theme, before steering the music with a steady hand through the pizzicato second subject and the skipping third, alternately ratcheting up the tempo then relaxing without over-slackening the pulse, showing a real grip and mastery over the constantly shifting moods and rhythms. The energised coda caps a beautifully gauged opening movement.

That judicious control of tempi extends into the Adagio, which is stately but not lugubrious, the warmth of its melodious chorale reminding us that this symphony’s nicknames - "Medieval" and "Catholic" – are redolent of faith and consolation. I note that unlike Ballot in his 2017 recording, Shimono opts for the variant indicated in the revised Nowak edition of the flute taking the repeated high A’s at the conclusion of the movement, which I like.

The Scherzo has plenty of weight and swing and Shimono displays a ready willingness to apply the rallentandi and accelerandi whimsically, in keeping with the fierce wit of the music, without distorting its shape or sounding self-consciously interventionist. The staccati have plenty of snap and bite and ensemble is tight; this is one good orchestra.

The finale begins promisingly with impudent interjections from the solo clarinet and trenchant groundwork from the double-basses; everything Shimono does has a sense of purpose and direction but also a freedom about it - he is never dry, stilted or academic in manner. The music soon takes flight with the descending octave third theme but then the veil of mystery descends with the hieratic, quasi-Dresden Amen, a golden glow of sound. Shimono is patient in his build-up here and paces the gradual intertwining of the themes and double fugue carefully, paying particular attention to dynamic gradation and variation, until the movement culminates in a magnificent brass paean of spine-tingling power.

The recorded sound is very clear well balanced and audience noise virtually non-existent; I rather like being able to hear the rapid flutter of page-turning at the pauses, as it reminds the listener of the atmosphere of a live recording. As the last bars die away, there follows an eruption from the audience, led by a roared “Bravo!” and wild applause. It is wholly deserved; this lovely performance exudes warmth and confidence and is by far the best of a whole batch of Bruckner recordings which recently came my way for review.

Ralph Moore

This review reproduced here by kind permission of the Bruckner Journal for whom it was originally written.

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