Bruckner Symphony No 5

This ‘Symphony of Faith’ receives a reading of rare vision and strength

Author: 
Richard Osborne
Bruckner Symphony No 5Bruckner Symphony No 5

BRUCKNER Symphony No 5 – Harnoncourt

  • Symphony No. 5

The word ‘vision’ is much misused these days yet to talk of Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s ‘view’ of Bruckner’s Fifth won’t quite do. This is more a realisation than an interpretation, musically vivid but spiritually serene.

I’ve seen it said that the real Bruckner is to be found in his themes, not his developments; that he was an embodier rather than a seeker. Not the least remarkable feature of Harnoncourt’s performance is his refusal to manipulate the structure of the long outer movements – the transitions in particular. This is risky. Scholars worry about what they call ‘disjunction’; so do conductors and listeners. I confess that after first hearing the performance I was more than happy to turn to Franz Welser-Möst’s more theatrical, structurally explicit reading, recorded live with the London Philharmonic in Vienna’s Konzerthaus during the 1993 Whitsun holiday.

Harnoncourt, however, drew me back to his serene – I suspect Baroque-inspired – view of this ‘Symphony of Faith’. Serene but now slow. By the clock, this is one of the quickest Fifths on record, though only the Adagio is taken more swiftly than usual. It was here that Bruckner began the symphony in the pit of despair in 1875 with a keening oboe melody which he marked ‘Sehr langsam’ but scored alla breve. Harnoncourt treats it allegretto after the manner of a threnody by Bach or Mozart, whose Requiem is quoted during the course of the movement. Furtwängler, surprisingly, took a similar view of the movement, as does Welser-Möst.

The ‘liveness’ of the live performance owes much to Harnoncourt – his persona fuelling the music-making not the concept, which is as it should be – though the superlative playing of the Vienna Philharmonic is also a factor. The light-fingered realisation of the exquisite string traceries is a constant source of wonder; tuttis are glowing and unforced. The hall of the Musikverein helps, too; with an audience present it offers a uniquely natural-sounding Bruckner acoustic.

Perversely, we get little sense of this in the 75-minute rehearsal disc, where the microphones are differently positioned and where the playing is often lacklustre and sketchy, the players disinclined to do more than absorb the gist of Harnoncourt’s remarks ahead of the performance itself. At one point, he delivers a short lecture on Bruckner and the Mozart Requiem. This will be double Dutch to non-German speakers (RCA provides no English-language digest of the rehearsal). Fortunately, the topic is more than adequately covered in Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs’s excellent booklet essay.

Another black mark against RCA is the jewel-case, which is fragile and difficult to handle. If you do manage to effect an entry, you will find within a performance of rare vision and strength.

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