Bruckner: Symphony No. 5

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Bruckner
LABELS: Telarc; Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Symphony No. 5 (plus bonus discussion disc with Telarc release)
PERFORMER: Philharmonia Orchestra/Benjamin Zander; Orchestre des Champs-Élysées/Philippe Herreweghe
CATALOGUE NO: 2CD-80680 (Telarc); HMC 902011 (Harmonia Mundi)

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For all that’s said about giving Bruckner’s music time to breathe, it’s refreshing to find a conductor who clearly takes the view that when Bruckner wrote ‘Allegro’ he actually meant it. In any case the two concepts aren’t necessarily contradictory, as Benjamin Zander’s performance shows. Zander’s Fifth must be one of the quickest on record, but it never sounds hurried.

This is particularly striking in the slow movement, where Zander takes the first group at such a mobile, flowing tempo that the four-against-six cross-rhythms emerge with unusual clarity (surprising how rarely this comes off in performance), each strand in the texture singing out quite naturally.

The contrast between the two tempos in the Scherzo is also nicely judged, so that the stop-start effect of too many performances is neatly dodged. After this comes a lively and exciting finale, with rhythms again bracingly focused. Zander also brings a welcome light touch, especially in the finale’s second theme – a reminder that Bruckner was a nimble dancer until well into his sixties.

If it isn’t quite as moving or as atmospheric as Günter Wand (who also had a very persuasive way with rhythm and tempo), it’s still very compelling and as structurally cogent as any version currently on disc.

Phillippe Herreweghe’s Fifth is much more spacious – plenty of time for deep breaths here. In fact it’s only three-and-a-half minutes longer than Zander, but it feels significantly longer. More to the point, while it sounds beautiful (especially the period woodwind and bass brass), it doesn’t have Zander’s impressive sense of direction. Slowing down for the first movement second theme can work, but here the energy soon ebbs away, to be replaced by – well, not a lot really.

And finely phrased though the slow movement main theme is, Herreweghe can’t quite make the cross rhythms work at this much slower tempo. But then the contrasting second theme has a magnificent stately momentum, sailing grandly to genuinely radiant climax. In such passages Herreweghe does seem to approach the heart of the music, but often it’s that indefinable sense of ‘inner intensity’, essential in post-Beethovenian symphonic music, that’s lacking above all.

To put it briefly: while Zander communicates intelligent love for this music (even without the benefit of the accompanying illustrated talk), most of the time Herreweghe conveys only a rather chilly admiration – so much so that after a while it required an effort to concentrate.

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On balance, Wand still manages to match all of Herreweghe’s beauty of sound, and most of Zander’s structural insight, while conveying something else – perhaps simply the sense that this music has been in his blood for a very long lifetime. Stephen Johnson