I wanted to like this more than I did, as this was truly a "feel good" story that had everything going for it: a relatively young Austrian conductor who took a shillackin' from the London press (he had a decade long stint with the London Phil.), only to soon become Cleveland's fourth or fifth music director; a Japanese tuba player, Yasahito Sugiyama, who was allegedly fired from the Vienna Philharmonic, only to immediately become successor to the great Ron Bishop (fabulous tuba player!); a wonderful orchestra from the heartland of America - complete with women, Asians, and even a few African American players - invited to come play at the illustrious Brucknerfest, right in the backyard of Vienna Philharmonic country (who have few women and - now! - no members of color); that serious Austrian conductor, playing up the role of the prodigal son, by way of conducting one of Bruckner's greatest musical edifices just a few feet from where he's now entombed. All of this made for a perfect setup, if ever there was one. Unfortunately, the performance itself doesn't quite live up to the rest of the story.
Simply put, the performance is TOO reverential, and never quite catches fire as it ought to. Welser-Most looks as though he's trying to be rather controlled and economical with his gestures. But with the Cleveland Orchestra in front of him, almost the opposite is needed. Every note from every player is perfectly in place, and perfectly in tune. To make a bad metaphor, their front yard is manucured to absolute perfection. In the interview with W-M that comes with the DVD, he compliments the Cleveland Orchestra on the fact that they don't allow their brass to dominant over everything; the way that so many other American orchestras do. Unfortunately, a bit more blustery playing from the brass, particularly the horns, is just what this performance needed. That, and a bit more unhinged timpani playing here and there as well. To put this another way, W-M/Cleveland paid plenty of hommage to the Bach and Schubert influences upon Bruckner (very fine string playing!), but the Wagnerian (read: teutonic) element to his music was sadly under-represented.
Interestingly enough, another W-M Bruckner 5th recording does exist: a 1993 live performance with the London Philharmonic, recorded on tour at Vienna's Konzerthaus for EMI. While not nearly so well-manicured sounding, W-M's earlier effort has everything that this one doesn't: speed in the right places; plenty of power; blazing horns, and loud timpani. It may not be quite as reverential as this 2006 Cleveland one (I think it is), but it's far more exciting and fun to listen to. As is if to underline the odd musical priorities of W-M/Cleveland at St. Florian Cathdedral, the camera work constantly keeps shifting back to a pair of flutes. I don't know about you, but I've never thought of the Bruckner 5th as a concerto for two flutes and large orchestra.
While it might not have meant anything, audience applause was tentative at first, and tepid at best.