Bruckner Symphony No 5
A young knight in shining armour, a gauntlet thrown down, a challenge toward. The feeling is clearly there as one listens to Franz Welser-Most's fiery, orchestrally burnished Bruckner Fifth, recorded with the London Philharmonic at a concert in Vienna's Konzerthaus, Whitsuntide 1993. The last time an Austrian conductor played Austrian music in Vienna with his own top-flight English orchestra was back in 1952 when Karajan and the Philharmonia broke a lance with the locals.
Let it be said right away that the London Philharmonic play gloriously and that the EMI engineers get superb results from the Konzerthaus auditorium. The hall postdates Bruckner and his music (it was built in 1913) but listening to this recording you might think the very walls were impregnated with the stuff. Technically, it surpasses anything we have had recently, including Decca's fine Concertgebouw recording for Chailly.
Of course, microphones relay sound, they don't create it. That is down to the orchestra and the conductor. In this instance, some conductor! Welser-Most has looked, listened, and decided 'enough is enough'. Enough of the 'long view' of Bruckner, enough pussy-footing around the Fifth as though it were some sacred monolith, enough of circumspection. ''Time let me play and be / Golden in the mercy of his means''. This is a performance sensual and exciting, that could have been filmed by Ken Russell or apostrophized by Dylan Thomas.
Not everyone will approve, of course. I can already hear the drone of lobbyists urging the Home Secretary to outlaw the making of love to a Bruckner symphony in public. (Did Welser-Most resign last year or was he deported? I am surprised none of our leading music columnists has addressed the question.) Certainly, this is not a CD for those of a nervous disposition or those who genuinely seek the longer view such as Karajan provides, or Haitink in his fine old Concertgebouw recording (now part of a budget-price nine-CD Philips set). Welser-Most's reading is more in the Jochum style where analysis doesn't drive out passion, where what is contemplated in the study doesn't entirely predetermine what is experienced in performance.
Welser-Most takes risks with the finale, where the fugue is driven fiercely on, and in the Adagio where his observation of the alla breve marking gives a generous pendulum-swing to the crotchet-triplet accompaniment. This can make for a reading that is unconsidered and over-quick, but not here. The play of two against three is beautifully realized as the basis for one of the most richly expressive of all recorded accounts of this movement.
In general, Welser-Most favours an almost Beethoven-like drive and directness. Yet there is plenty of space around the lyric subjects and chorales. In the first movement the gearing of the transitions whereby this is achieved is especially elaborate. He is most obviously himself, the boy from Linz, in the Scherzo and Trio. It begins fiercely, as Bruckner requires, but then opens out in a wonderfully broad lolloping Upper Austrian dance. This is the one part of the reading where he is slower than some of his immediate rivals.
Konwitschny's 1961 Leipzig performance expensively spread over two full-price CDs, is also very well recorded, the sound clean and bright, with good depth of perspective. His reading is also very alert logical and alive—as you might expect. He treats the slow movement as an Adagio, an option the Leipzig players realize with affection. That said, his Scherzo is not as beguilingly Austrian as Welser-Most's and the finale falls rather flat. Where Welser-Most is on the glory trail carrying all before him, Konwitschny is rather dull, the tempos sedate, the phrasing uniform.'