I have given this recording many hearings and viewings before sitting down to write a review. With each viewing, the sublimity of this performance and interpretation has only grown in its stature and magnificence.
Bruckner 5 strikes me in many ways as something akin to Beethoven 3 (despite the last movement's resemblance to the final movement of Beethoven 9, in its restatement of themes from earlier movements). I would venture that for most people new to classical music, the Eroica is not their introduction to Beethoven's symphonies. They probably come to him through the 5th or 9th. Similarly, I would venture that people new to Bruckner come to him not through this symphony, but through the 4th, the 7th (as I did, 10 years ago, after living with the 7th for 35 years), or the 8th. Yet in both works, these composers are flexing their symphonic muscles, particularly in the use of counterpoint. Bruckner is no less successful than Beethoven, despite the fact that the sound and structure of their works are universes apart. But, for me and I think many others, Bruckner 5 stands as a milestone in this great composer's body of works, no less significant than the Eroica stands in Beethoven's.
With that said, I hasten to add that I find this performance to be as about as close to perfect as imaginable. I own almost every performance of this work available on CD or DVD, because when I first encountered it, long before I came to the 8th and 9th, it was love at first hearing. I know it's absurd, but I think of Bruckner 5 as my secret--only *I* know how great it is (stupid, I know--just ask Franz Welser-Möst). But, this symphony is closest to my heart, among all of his works.
And this performance is breathtaking. My benchmark is Celibidache's performance with Munich on EMI from 1999. I have worshipped this recording since it was released, and nothing has ever come close (well, maybe Harnoncourt does)--until this. The performances are very different. Welser-Möst brings out more humor (which I think this score holds in abundance) than Celibidache, while retaining the elder maestro's grasp of the work's weight and power. What is almost unbelievable is the commitment of each and every player of the Cleveland Orchestra to every single note of this performance. I have been stunned and left speechless by the care each player gives to every note. It is incredible to see how rapt the players are in each of Welser-Möst's gestures--in so many instances, with their parts memorized, principal players do not take their eyes off of him for 2 or 3 measures at a stretch. Their profound attachment to this music, which they display time and again through their attention and devotion to this great conductor, is moving.
And well they should pay attention to him: he has a subdued yet magnetic intensity that puts him in the realm of Toscanini, Furtwängler and Karajan.
This is an extraordinary performance, in every respect. The quivering of Welser-Möst's left hand at the end says it all. The performance is astonishing, and those lucky enough to have been in Bruckner's beloved Stiftsbasilika St. Florian for this performance should count themselves as witnesses to something profound. I only hope those of us who get to hear Cleveland and Welser-Möst perform Bruckner 5, 7, 8 and 9 in 10 days in New York will be as lucky.