Bruckner: Symphony No. 5 (DVD)

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Bruckner
LABELS: C Major
WORKS: Symphony No. 5
PERFORMER: Staatskapelle Dresden/ Christian Thielemann
CATALOGUE NO: DVD: 717808; Blu-ray: 717904

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Each year Christian Thielemann and the Staatskapelle Dresden, of which he is chief conductor, launch the season with a Bruckner symphony, nowadays issued on Blu-ray and DVD. I haven’t usually liked Thielemann’s conducting of Bruckner, or of much else for that matter. I have found him to be too self-consciously ‘traditional’, in the manner of Wilhelm Furtwängler and Hans Knappertsbusch, two very great but very different conductors, but similar to each other in the spontaneity of their music-making. Thielemann, it has seemed to me, goes in for calculated spontaneity, a contradiction in terms, and also for an oppressive monumentality reminiscent of the worst of Herbert von Karajan. That was certainly the case with Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, released last year and reviewed in September 2014.

So it came as a most welcome surprise that he conducts the Fifth, quite the most difficult of Bruckner’s symphonies both to grasp and, I should think, to conduct, in a fresh and exciting way. It’s utterly unlike his previous recording, on CD, with the Munich Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon). That was a case of rigor mortis. Here, in the glorious surroundings of the Semper Oper and with this staggering orchestra, the brass playing of which has been celebrated by everyone since Wagner, there is both tension and relaxation.

More than in any other of his works Bruckner experiments with laying down his material without transitions, and working the movements out – with the exception of the third, the scherzo – more or less as jigsaws, seeing how the pieces might fit together, and leaving quite a lot of the work to the listener. It makes for a strenuous 90 minutes, but the effort is wholly worthwhile. Especially in the case of the last movement, which follows Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in quoting motifs of the previous movements, but combining them in a vast fugue with a massive brass chorale. The audience was evidently stunned, and so am I.

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Michael Tanner