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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major (1878, ed. Nowak)
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Franz Konwitschny
rec. 25-28 & 30 June 1961, Kongreßhalle, Leipzig

This recording is subtitled “Originalfassung” which of course indicates the version reflecting the revisions made in 1878 over the 1876 score and is presumably meant to distinguish it from the Schalk version made much later in the 1890’s, but it is not the “1876 First Concept” (Ed. Carragan) or the reconstruction as recorded by Tsutsumi and Naito respectively. However, we must be grateful that the 1878 edition is used here, as around the same time Knappertsbusch was still performing the Schalk version with cuts - as was Rozhdestvensky even only three years ago (review) - whereas luminaries such as Böhm, Karajan and even Furtwängler had already long been performing the Haas edition. Konwitschny was similarly progressive.

I am a Konwitschny fan; he was a great, charismatic and versatile conductor - and I would also remark that he was playing Bruckner in East Germany long before it caught on in the West, so this remastered reissue is most welcome, especially as it is such a fine account of the Fifth. The LP was originally issued on Eterna (as per the top right of the cover here), then the CD appeared on the Berlin Classics label and as part of various box sets such as that from Scribendum, but those CDs were apparently over-processed so as to deaden the sound; this Hybrid SACD issue is the result of a collaboration between Berlin Classics and the Tower Records Japan and is much more alive. The cover carries the legend “Please understand that noise (sic) of this disc were (sic) caused by the original master tape”, to which quaintly phrased warning I might observe that Pristine don’t make that excuse when remastering older recordings but successfully reduce that noise. No matter; Tower are clearly just playing safe as the hiss is minimal and the sound excellent for its age, really vivid – only it’s a pity about the quite prominent pre-echo, which is more worrisome than any hiss, especially if you listen on headphones. There is also a clumsy edit at 8:44 in the first movement, whose abruptness could surely have been mitigated via remastering.

Minor sonic issues notwithstanding, the performance is superb. There is a palpable crackle of electricity in the introduction typical of Konwitschny; the brass blare brazenly (in both senses of the word) as if heralding the arrival of some behemoth, and ensemble is tight, as you can hear from the pizzicati. Like Karajan and Eichhorn – in favourite versions of mine - Konwitschny’s speeds are on the slow side; this is grand, majestic Bruckner, just how I like to hear this cosmic “Church of Faith” symphony performed, but also truly exciting. Konwitschny treats the flowing third theme of the first movement liberally, with plenty of rubato and pointing of accents; this is just the kind of individuality I miss in too many very “correct,” recent recordings. Konwitschny is not afraid to “interpret” Bruckner and he gets the spirit of the music absolutely right.

The Gesangsperiode of the Adagio is wonderfully lyrical and the thematic development always strong and emphatic – “kräftig”, as Bruckner demands, by which I infer he wanted a truly hefty sound - and the Leipzig orchestra simply make such a wonderful noise, without ever being merely crude. The Scherzo is ostensibly flexible, frolicking and fun, as it should be, but there is always an underlying sense of hysteria. Accelerandi are beautifully gauged and the climax is thrilling. The finale sustains the same level of interpretative excellence and is again perfectly paced, with a real sense of homogeneous propulsion building inexorably to a magnificent, shattering conclusion. Such is the energy of the playing that you could be forgiven for thinking that this was a recording of a live performance.

I unhesitatingly endorse this as one of the three or four greatest Bruckner Fifth recordings I know, despite the persistent pre-echo problem. Unfortunately, it does not seem to be that widely available at present; the only way of getting it seems to be direct from Tower Records Japan – although it is also on sale very expensively on eBay.

Ralph Moore

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

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