BRUCKNER. Symphony No.5. Champs-Elysees/Herreweghe
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Rarely did the premiere of a Bruckner symphony arouse such enthusiasm-- even if, in this case, the first performance took place nearly twenty years after its composition. The work captivated listeners with its ineffable mystery (one thinks of late Beethoven), combining 'Baroque' logic with Romantic introspection. Parting company with Wagner, Bruckner had clearly found his own unique musical voice.
Rarement la première d'une symphonie de Bruckner souleva un tel enthousiasme -- en l'occurrence, si la création de l'oeuvre eut lieu près de vingt ans après sa composition, elle parvint à captiver son auditoire par son indicible mystère (on songe aux compositions tardives de Beethoven), entre logique baroque" et introspection romantique. S'écartant de Wagner, Bruckner avait ici trouvé sa voie…"
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I agree with SFL that Herreweghe and the Orchestra de Champs-Elysees warrant respect in their interpretation of this masterpiece. The conductor's grip is exemplary: there's nothing episodic about it whatsoever. I'm not overly bothered by the absence of vibrato. Unlike so many speed-merchants, a serious attempt is made to reckon with the ordnance of the slow movement. Even so, however mellifluous its woodwind might be, the orchestra in question is seriously underpowered in its expressive weight (just listen to the 8'52"ff in the first movement - the Academy of St Martins in the Field has more torque to its name). The final bars of the finale are underwhelming (there's no fifth gear at 21'49"ff). Worse still (as SFL observes), the performance lacks spirituality. It evokes nothing beyond itself. In comparison, Ronald McDonald is the He-Man of Metaphysics. I attribute its absence to the usual failure of nerve where one dares not give vent to Bruckner's Weltanschauung (world-view) lest a yokel-tag be forthcoming. We're far too sophisticated for that!
Scholars say that one should never mix sources. Nevertheless, if one were to merge the first, third and fourth movements of Barenboim / Berlin Philharmonic with Karajan's unparalleled Adagio, one is knocking on heaven's door.
In fact, this is a serious interpretation. Nobody was saying, "Oh boy, let's make Bruckner sound like Vivaldi." The absence of vibrato will never be a plus for me. If I were to judge this Fifth by the undernourished string sound at the beginning, noting else would have mattered. But Herreweghe is highly expressive, and one has only to hear the beautifully phrased Adagio to feel impressed. Ultimately, the Bruckner fifth rises or falls based upon how well the conductor can hold it together and deliver a satisfying whole out of the work's disjointed, rambling parts. They are inspired parts in many ways, but the symphony' stop-go pacing and frequent interludes of slow chorales are an obstacle for the listener. It's hard to tell a coherent story form beginning to end.
Herreweghe does as well as most. His earlier Bruckner recordings felt a bit pointless to me, a bundle of HIP gestures without overall meaning. But the fifth has so few outstanding recordings that there was room for improvement. Herreweghe's two big successes are the adagio, as mentioned, and the problematic finale. It is such an omnium gatherum that nobody beyond Furtwangler makes it sound coherence -- and he succeeds only through magisterial force of will. Herreweghe cuts the Gordian knot and lays the movement as a sequence of episodes, each with its own charm, sometimes punchy, sometimes spicy, sometimes solemn and noble. Far better that than straining for grandness but achieving only grandiosity.
The other two movements fare less well. The choppy Scherzo sounds impatient. The first movement, which resounds with theological implications, fails to find a sacred center or spiritual depth. For some listeners, those who want their Bruckner taken out of the cathedral, this lack may be a plus. I've heard the Clevelanders under Welser-Most deliver an equally dispassionate first movement. there, as here, it's refreshing for ten minutes but aimless thereafter. In any event, there's much to admire here, and except for a very few minutes, the imposition of period tics was no bother at all.