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A guide to Bruckner's Symphony No. 5 and its best recordings

Devout yet unconventional, Bruckner’s Fifth has long been misjudged, says Terry Williams, who finds which recordings reveal its greatness

A guide to Bruckner's Symphony No. 5 and its best recordings
Published: January 2, 2022 at 7:07 am
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No less a luminary than the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, when speaking at the German Bruckner Society in 1939, remarked that Anton Bruckner, a life-long devout Catholic, ‘did not work for the present; in his art he thought only of eternity and he created for eternity…’ His masses and symphonies are indisputable testament to that judgment.

Who was Bruckner?

Born in 1824 in Upper Austria, the son of a village schoolmaster and organist, Bruckner showed distinct musical talent from an early age. On the death of his father, he entered the monastery school at St Florian as a choirboy at the age of 13.

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He left only temporarily to train as an elementary schoolteacher in Linz, returning to St Florian in 1845 to teach for ten years before he became the abbey church’s chief organist and Kappellmeister, during which time he composed many choral works, notably his Requiem in D minor (1849). Finally abandoning the security of St Florian, he became firstly Linz Cathedral organist, then succeeded his mentor Simon Sechter as professor of harmony and counterpoint at the Vienna Conservatory in 1868. This was despite a nervous breakdown two years earlier, aged 42.

Bruckner was vilified as nothing more than a country bumpkin by the Viennese élite and was also the object of partisan scorn by the most celebrated critic of the day, Eduard Hanslick, who was contemptuous of his admiration for the work of Richard Wagner – remarkably, despite Hanslick’s opposition as Dean of Faculty, Bruckner was appointed to the University of Vienna in 1875. But above all else, Bruckner craved recognition as a composer of symphonies in the tradition of Beethoven and Schubert.

What is the structure and instrumentation of Bruckner's Fifth?

Bruckner began composing the Fifth Symphony in 1875 and finished it the following year. It’s the only one of his symphonies to start with a slow introduction, and he devotes the whole of the first movement to laying down the building blocks for the rest of the work. A stealthy pizzicato passage from cellos and basses is brought to a standstill by a full orchestral outburst. There is then a brief pause followed by a stately brass chorale and a fragment of what will become the Allegro. Again, a silence checks progress before the strings return. There comes another hiatus, a whisper from the strings, a brief intake of breath, and then the Allegro sweeps in. The first movement ends with a drum-roll punctuated by five emphatic chords which will be heard again much later in the coda to the finale.

Pizzicato chords introduce a second movement that is arguably Bruckner’s greatest Adagio. A plaintive oboe sings a sad song before we arrive at a soulful and noble melody for strings alone. However, Bruckner keeps his powder dry. There is no slow build-up to an awe-inspiring heavenly climax as in the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies. Instead, the music becomes increasingly fragmented until it disappears into silence, to be followed by the third-movement Scherzo, in which the composer puts on his dancing shoes in a cross between an Austrian Ländler and a Bohemian polka.

In all his previous symphonies, Bruckner had trouble with his finales, none of them totally satisfying, no matter which version or revision you hear. The finale of the Fifth was, then, something of a watershed for Bruckner, containing his most complex and innovative musical thoughts and set out like a huge mathematical puzzle. Chorale and counterpoint dominate throughout.

Like the first two movements, the finale begins with pizzicato strings. The hushed threnody which follows is interrupted by the clarinet, seemingly thumbing its nose at the orchestra. Fragments of the first two movements are then thrust aside by fierce lower strings, which announce the first fugue. We then get the familiar Brucknerian pattern – which tends to either delight or infuriate the listener – of hesitations, diversions, silences and the inevitable long build-up to a brass-drenched coda.

Bruckner, the fanatical revisionist, made only slight amendments to the score on this occasion. Perhaps for the first time in his chequered career, he believed he had just about got everything right first time round. However, that didn’t prevent Ferdinand Löwe and the Schalk brothers, his well-meaning but misguided acolytes who were intent on getting Bruckner heard at all costs, from tampering with his original score. In 1894, Franz Schalk performed his own bastardised version in Graz. Mercifully, Bruckner was too ill to attend. He only ever heard his Fifth Symphony in a two-piano version by Josef Schalk and Franz Zottman, and it was not until 1935, 39 years after his death, that the original full orchestral score was performed in Robert Haas’s definitive edition.

What's the best recording of Bruckner's Fifth Symphony?

Günter Wand (conductor)

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra

RCA 09026685032

For some, Wilhelm Furtwängler’s 1942 Berlin Philharmonic recording remains a benchmark – it is fiery, impulsive and races home in just 68 minutes. In similar vein, though less headlong, Claudio Abbado (one of the best conductors ever) and the Vienna Philharmonic provide a thrilling ride, just missing out on a top spot because of a strident edge to the recorded sound.

Much better recorded is Bernard Haitink who, with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (one of the best orchestras in the world), tells us we are in safe hands with his customary blend of musical intelligence and patience. And for a lighter, leaner Bruckner Fifth, Marek Janowski and his superb Suisse Romande Orchestra are a refreshing alternative.

But best of all is Günter Wand. A lifetime Bruckner devotee, he nevertheless took his time before committing himself to performing the symphonies. He deemed the Fifth to be ‘the most perplexing work in the composer’s canon’ – one suspects it was also the one he felt closest to, as it represents a huge intellectual challenge. Wand was one of the old-style Kapellmeisters, but his scholarly, meticulously considered approach always produced tremendous results, nowhere more apparent than in Bruckner.

Wand’s 1974 Cologne recording of Bruckner’s Fifth comes highly recommended, but his 1996 Berlin account is the one that seems to crystallise best his mature take on the work. By then well into his 80s, he shapes the latter performance, an amalgamation of three concerts, with unerring logic and conviction. As ever, he conducts Bruckner’s original version edited by Robert Haas, and gives equal weight to the composer’s architectural strength and emotional warmth. Perhaps sensing that history was in the making, the orchestra is on incandescent form – the concentration of every player and member of the silent audiences is palpable.

In this Berlin performance, the opening movement has both granite strength and drive. The Adagio matches the gravitas and spirituality of Sergiu Celibidache’s very expansive version with the Munich Philharmonic, but nonetheless manages to knock eight minutes off the Romanian conductor’s overall timing. In the Finale, Wand not only maintains the momentum but increases it, making light work of Bruckner’s fugal writing, and his final coda is as exciting and decisive as any. And to cap it all off, RCA’s excellent sound engineers capture an ideal, mid-stalls concert-hall perspective.

Three other great recordings of Bruckner's Fifth Symphony

Rémy Ballot (conductor)

Gramola 99162

For ‘cathedrals of sound’, try this 2016 live recording made at the composer’s final resting place in the monastery church at St Florian, where he is buried immediately below the organ. At a staggering 90 minutes, Celibidache protégé Rémy Ballot seems to be replicating his mentor’s fondness for very slow tempos. Ballot’s radical approach sometimes veers close to the grandiose, but it is heroically executed by the Altomonte Orchestra St Florian, which sounds entirely convinced. The ambience of the vast venue is superbly captured by the Gramola engineers. (Gramola 99162)

Otto Klemperer (conductor)

Testament SBT 21485

Of Otto Klemperer’s three recordings of the Fifth, his 1967 Royal Festival Hall performance with the New Philharmonia Orchestra is more galvanised in the finale than the studio version set down a week earlier at the Kingsway Hall (his third recording, also excellent, was made with the Vienna Philharmonic the following year). Captured in decent mono, the orchestral sound is typical of late Klemperer: monochromatic and with little concession to tonal refinement. In the closing pages, however, he gives the brass full rein, with the NPO’s trumpeters rising from their seats to help drive home a blistering finish.

Giuseppe Sinopoli (conductor)

Deutsche Grammophon 469 5272

After much deliberation, my fourth choice goes to Giuseppe Sinopoli, another maverick like Celibidache and whose interpretations also still divide opinion many years after his untimely death in 2001. This volcanic, muscularly sculpted reading of the Leopold Nowak edition, recorded live by the Dresden Staatskapelle at the German city’s Semperoper in 1999, has the benefits of glorious orchestral playing and vivid sound quality. (Deutsche Grammophon 469 5272)

And one to avoid…

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Conductor Hans Knappertsbusch’s 1956 Decca recording with the Vienna Philharmonic is a relic of the bad old days of Bruckner performance, serving up Franz Schalk’s disastrously misguided edition of the score. That said, if you fancy a re-orchestrated Bruckner Five with added cymbal crashes, this is for you. Otherwise, thank God for Leopold Nowak and Robert Haas.

Authors

Terry WilliamsJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

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