Bruckner Symphony No. 5
It’s difficult to believe when watching a very frail-looking Günter Wand conducting Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony at the Proms in 1990 that a few years later (with the Berlin Philharmonic, for RCA, 7/97) he was still capable of delivering a strong, uncluttered and, most important, unmannered interpretation. A snippet of (German) interview settles his Brucknerian priorities more or less definitively. Yes, there’s spirituality in this wonderful music, a metaphysical dimension if you like, but structure is a crucial issue – interconnecting themes are there as proof of that – and you ignore Bruckner’s structures at your peril. Observing Wand at the head of the Fifth is like seeing an elderly man in love: virtually every phrase inspires a prior response – the raising of an eyebrow, the hint of a smile, eyes slowly scanning the relevant desks, the beat, always perfectly clear. No score is used and Wand’s concentration doesn’t falter for a moment. The BBC Symphony Orchestra delivers magnificently and the performance itself is everything one could wish for: cogent and well paced, direct, dramatic, warm, and fashioned without either unwarranted rubato or churchly affectations. Many readers will no doubt remember individual BBC players on sight (I certainly do); they may even recognise themselves standing in the Arena (if you were wearing a T-shirt ‘Save Ealing Common’, then that was probably you!). The stereo sound quality is basically good though you may notice the odd spot of pre-echo. The camerawork is busier than I ideally like (sweat, pimples, scraping bows, period hairstyles, puffed-out cheeks pressed against mouthpieces – do we really need any of it?) but the play of expressions on Wand’s face is worth all of the rest. A real treat.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s way with Bruckner is of a very different order but well worth troubling over. His Bruckner series with the Orchestre Métropolitain (Symphonies Nos 7, 8 and 9 are already available – 6/07, 5/10, 12/08) now features a lyrical and often exciting account of the Fourth, its general mood keenly suggestive of the work’s nickname, Romantic. Nézet-Séguin shies away from weighty sound blocks or dense textures; rather, he inflects the musical line according to its expressive place in the overall scheme of things and isn’t afraid to dip the tempo at crucial corners, so that we can better appreciate the view. At 11'04" into the finale, for example, after an especially telling diminuendo, he pulls back dramatically to emphasise the gesture that follows. The Scherzo is full of energy, though again its most lyrical aspects come off best – at 1'50", where the strings’ counterpoint is warmly stressed, as is the clarinet’s response soon afterwards. The Andante is equally successful, especially the crescendo-ing strings above quiet drum taps towards the end of the movement (at 15'38"). Which only leaves me to comment on Nézet-Séguin’s flexibly handled first movement, and the rapt quiet playing of the Orchestre Métropolitain (though the brass-dominated climaxes are also very effective, and the lead horn, Louis-Philippe Marsolais, is superb). Robert Haas’s 1936 edition is used. Very different to Wand’s Bruckner style but still compelling.