I am an admirer of Herreweghe and often particularly like how he clarifies and even purifies musical lines and textures to bring out their individual voices. Clearly he knows exactly what he wants to do with Bruckner here and achieves it; whether you, especially if you are a conservative or traditionalist with firm views about how Bruckner should be interpreted, will like this approach is for you to decide. Certainly there are moments of limpid beauty in this recording but I'm not sure that is enough.
It is not just speed that is the issue; at around an hour Herreweghe's certainly one of the fastest performances on record, but in the good company of William Steinberg, Heinz Rögner and even Knappertsbusch. However, the latter had the advantage of directing the VPO, just as Rögner had the Berlin Radio Symphony in its heyday and all are distinctly more flexible than the rather metronomic Herreweghe. He has an orchestra of only 76 instrumentalists playing on gut strings and replica period instruments without much vibrato and thus distinctly underpowered at key points.
Hence the opening has little glow or tension about it; instead of hearing the stirrings of a big beast in that hesitant thrumming of that opening theme, we are almost listening to the town band run through a practice exercise and we lack the sense of building essential to Bruckner long, arcing conceptions. Thus the first movement jog-trots without the requisite variation in weight of sound or dynamics and the impact of the chorale is diminished. To be fair, the conclusion is ethereal but so delicate as to fail to gather momentum and the climax disappoints.
Similarly, the stern prophet's voice which opens the Adagio is muted by the lack of vibrato and the strings' line bulges and whines for the same reason. The melody literally cannot sing because the orchestra is doing the instrumental equivalent of humming. Nonetheless, the music itself is so beautiful and the playing so dedicated, with fine intonation, that they almost get away with it. Once gain again, however, the climax fails to overwhelm; compensation comes in the form of the ravishing horn and Wagner tuba playing over the last minute or so.
The Scherzo is pretty foolproof in the hands of any decent conductor and Herreweghe captures its mood without it sounding exactly demonic. The Finale constitutes the greatest disappointment; there simply isn't enough caressing of the music in the quiet passages and the big, bombastic utterances in march time are prosaic.
What is Bruckner if you deliberately underplay his Romanticism and spirituality? Certainly not what he intended us to understand him to be. This is an interesting experiment in re-thinking his most popular symphony but not one, I think, which ultimately honours his spirit.