Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)
Symphony No 5 in B-flat major (ed. Nowak)
rec. 2021, Goldener Saal, Musikverein, Vienna
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Christian Thielemann
SONY CLASSICAL 19658706142 
While I am not necessarily uniquely an advocate of the Celibidache/Ballot school of pacing in Bruckner symphonies, I find that excessive haste is increasingly the norm among modern conductors and in my recent reviews of new recordings, I have in general bemoaned that tendency.
One conductor who resists that trend is Christian Thielemann; he embraces “Old School Romanticism”; as a result, it is immediately noticeable in the slow-paced introduction that he is ignoring Bruckner’s marking of two beats in the bar and producing something far slower and weightier, making the opening as grand and stately as any, evoking a mist over the procession. The recorded sound is just a little tubby and there is sometimes an element of woolliness or lack of bite there, but the bass resonance underscores an imposing start to proceedings and I very much like the audibility of the pizzicato ground. All layers of sound are distinct, the woodwind in particular are very present and the snarling brass are given a more spacious acoustic nine minutes in. Detail after detail emerges as carefully considered and managed; tremolandos are never mushy, vibrations are clean and clear. If I have any reservation about the VPO’s playing, it is that its strings need to be asked to dig in more and provide more punch – which of course we know they can do if the conductor so wills it, but presumably Thielemann did not; otherwise, they produce their recognisably huge, weighty sound with no lack of precision.
As a result of the conductor imposing his vision, the mysterious aspect of this most “cosmic” of symphonies is triumphantly realised, as are its “chamber music“ qualities, too; phrasing and tempo are ideal and the underlining of harmonic shifts and key changes is beautifully executed, but the “elemental”, savage potential of the music is underplayed and there is a lack of contrast between those moods. Soft passages are superb, but the louder, contrasting sections are just a little too restrained; it is not so much a question of volume as of attack, hence the conclusion to the first movement is marginally blunted by a lack of percussiveness.
As you might expect with such performers, the swing and swell of the Mahlerian Ländler in the Adagio are lovely; it is played with great warmth, but the Big Tune is too smooth. It begins to build massively at around five minutes into the movement, but trumpets which carry that tune are submerged by the strings and the syncopation is again muted by the dominance of the strings over the brass; it is as if the players are never let off the leash and are stuck at mezzo-forte. These are flaws which are indeed characteristic of the whole performance.
The Scherzo conforms to this pattern: it begins beguilingly in red-blooded style and the accelerandi and rallentandi are pretty much perfectly judged, but the ending lacks impact; the finale, too, is essentially too leisurely and there is too much of the “pet savage” about it. I begin to repeat myself, in that I observe that the sound is consistently full and rounded but there is always too great an element of restraint. Surprisingly, however, given Thielemann’s propensity for leisureliness, the development of the new, expansive string theme at 3:50 is too rushed and his unvaryingly fast tempo robs the music of lyricism at far too early a point in the movement. The brass chorale at 7:22 is also too fast and lacking in bite; Thielemann’s uncharacteristically conscious decision to continue in this vein and maintain an unvarying, doctrinaire uniformity of tempo results in a sustained monotony until the first relaxation of tempo fully sixteen minutes in when, finally, some flexibility is introduce - but then, perversely, his beat is too fast, such that the whole coda is rushed and lacking in weight and sonority; fast does not guarantee excitement. When he finally relaxes the tempo during the last two minutes and the brass are allowed to sing, the peroration is arresting – but it is too little too late.
The lack of stringency throughout and miscalculations of tempo in the last movement compromise what is still a beautifully played account but for the complete package in this symphony, I would still turn to such as Karajan, Eichhorn (original version) and Knappertsbusch (Schalk).
(Sony no longer provides the total timing for its releases – given above - only individual movements, which is irritating.)
This review commissioned by, and reproduced by kind permission of, The Bruckner Journal.
Published: October 19, 2022