Bruckner: Symphony No. 5

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Bruckner
LABELS: RCA Victor Red Seal
WORKS: Symphony No. 5
PERFORMER: Berlin PO/Günter Wand
CATALOGUE NO: 09026 68503 2
Nothing was going right for Bruckner at the time he wrote his Fifth Symphony in 1875. He was hopelessly in debt, the now popular Fourth Symphony had been rejected by the Vienna Philharmonic after a disastrous rendition of the Third under the unwise direction of the composer himself. And yet out of this unremitting gloom and pessimism (‘All the joy and pleasure have gone out of my life: it seems utterly pointless and futile’) he was able to write his Fifth Symphony, a radically monumental structure combining the hugeness of symphonic architecture with complex contrapuntal writing (he was a superb technician in such matters after years of assiduous study). It took from 1875 to 1878, but it lay unplayed until 1894 when a drastically revised version by the conductor Franz Schalk was performed. We hear no more of that, for Nowak’s 1935 edition of the original version is the received wisdom and the ever-amazing 85-year-old Wand uses it in this excellent live performance recorded in 1996. From the opening string bass pizzicatos we are in the hands of a superb Brucknerian, who skilfully shapes and colours its varying moods.

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The First Symphony (also a live 1996 recording but with the VPO) couldn’t be more of a contrast. It is a boisterous work full of sparkling energy, and Abbado (using the Nowak edition of the 1866 Linz version) has its measure in a well-paced and driven opening Allegro, a brooding Adagio, a vigorously rustic scherzo and a broadly majestic finale. Good though Abbado is, it is Günter Wand who never ceases to amaze – let us hope that there is still time for more.