Symphony No. 5
Vienna Philharmonic/Christian Thielemann
Sony Classical 19658706142 81:21 mins
Bruckner’s greatest? Certainly his most proportionate, integrated movement-sequence, in which the vast double-fugue finale truly crowns and completes the entire symphonic edifice. But also a work of extremes, of gaunt gestures, distant echoes and jagged contrapuntal workouts, in which an orchestral line-up scarcely larger than that required for a late Schubert symphony is expected to deliver the ultimate in stamina and power.
Interpretations have proved quite as diverse, with more ‘objective’ conductors, such as the young Haitink, delivering the work in around 70 minutes, while more Romantically interventionist directors, such as Karajan, can take ten, or even 15 minutes longer. Thielemann inclines to the Romantics. Like all too many conductors, he ignores Bruckner’s marking of two slow beats per bar in the calmly pacing opening paragraph; adopting a very slow four beats, that oblige him to speed up and shorten rests in the ensuing tutti gestures and chorale fragments. Similar unmarked tempo adjustments between different textures abound in the first movement, while the culmination of the slow movement and the landler sections of the scherzo drag under his sluggish baton.
At the same time, the recorded sound strikes a near ideal balance between spaciousness and clarity of detail, while the playing of the Vienna Philharmonic is often of extreme beauty. The effect is very much to link the Fifth to the late Bruckner of the last three symphonies. But the Fifth surely has an austere, uncompromising sound and style of its own quite distinct from late or early Bruckner. This escapes Thielemann.