BRUCKNER Symphony No 5
It says Vienna Philharmonic on the label, so it must be. The innocent ear, though, might well conclude that this spry, bright, often rather chilly account of Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony was the work, not of the Vienna Philharmonic, but of one of the leaner-sounding American ensembles. The recording does not help. Allegedly made live, it has a curiously sterile feel to it, more midnight mortuary than Musikverein. The silences surrounding the great pillars of sound that Bruckner erects near the start of the symphony are oddly ‘dead’, wiped clean of all trace of ambient noise; wiped clean, almost, of any real reverberation. Eugen Jochum once wrote of the need for “staccato with resonance” in this symphony. Staccato or legato, the Vienna Philharmonic string playing here tends to lack resonance of any kind; be it acoustic resonance or something that is harder to define but which is the ground on which any great Bruckner performance is built, namely a kind of spiritual resonance, a bloom, a glow. Schuricht’s performance has it, live from the Musikverein in 1963, the sound emanating from the orchestra via DG’s old mono recording noticeably warmer than anything we have here. Welser-Most and the London Philharmonic have it in a generally glorious 1993 performance recorded in Vienna’s Konzerthaus. And so, of course, does the 1951 VPO/Furtwangler, though the Austrian Radio recording is rather husky when heard alongside the Schuricht or the Welser-Most versions.
Abbado’s performance is at its best in the slow movement – tenderly, decorously, elegantly done – and in the finale, once the fugue has got under way. (“Home, James, and don’t spare the horses!” I hear him cry.) The Scherzo is badly undercharacterized (though not the Trio) and though Abbado shrewdly avoids many of the more obvious blunders that conductors make over tempo changes in this symphony (at fig. F of the finale, for example, where he is admirably steady) there is, in general, a rather uneasy oscillation between po-faced solemnity and a rather hectic “let’s get on with it, chaps” extroversion. There are times, indeed, in the first movement when Abbado has Bruckner skipping along like a March lamb. Enough said.'