An atheist can revel in Bruckner. One (if not two) of my buddies on Amazon are agnostic and they probably understand the composer better than I. On my part, I find it increasingly difficult to separate Bruckner from cosmology - if not theology itself. This is acutely true of his Fifth Symphony. This stupendous creation is often likened to a cathedral. The metaphor resonates with me, less from an architectural perspective and more like a sequence of stained-glass windows which chart the history of salvation from Genesis to Revelation, culminating in a Rose Window where Christ Pantocrator, Lord of the Universe, sits enthroned in majesty.
When Elisabeth Schwarzkopf - a dreadnought in everything but name - was interviewed for The Art of Conducting - Great Conductors of the Past, she was asked, "if you could work again with a conductor of the past, who would it be?" After a moment's thought, she steelily replied "Wolfgang Sawallisch!" This left the interviewer flummoxed. He probed again, hoping to elicit Wilhelm Furtwangler or Herbert von Karajan as an answer. She stuck to her Yamato-sized guns: Sawallisch. It's an interesting response. Take Capriccio out of the equation and I am not quite sure there is much left to treasure in his discography, worthy though it be. That being said, the Penguin Guide consistently praises his Bruckner. Now I understand why.
Superlatively recorded, this is a performance to rate with the best. Patience is cardinal in Bruckner and especially so in his Fifth Symphony. Sawallisch is inexorable as he progressively builds momentum. Dismissive of mere foothills, he unerringly seeks out the true summit of each movement. This is especially true of the finale where Bruckner regiments the constellations to glorify the One: what a moment! Bruckner was a great master of polyphony. I cannot recall a performance of the Fifth where the inner workings of the orchestra are so audible to the ear, not that it militates the overall current. It is also a gutsy performance: Sawallish unfetters the timpanist to vivid effect.
Two criticisms come to mind. A tad over sixteen minutes, the Adagio is too fast for my liking, stylishly played though it be. Sawallisch is not alone in this fad; indeed, it is sadly becoming the norm. What is a man to do? Play the Karajan or Celibidache in response to this butchery? I don't know. Truly we live in a fallen world. Secondly, for all its resplendence, the Bavarian State Orchestra - Kna's old outfit - is not the Berlin Philharmonic. For all its excellence, it cannot eke out that extra newton of torque at the conclusion of the slow introduction or the climax of the finale itself. Even so, it is not for want of trying.
For all that, this is a first-rate Bruckner Fifth - and how thrilling it is! I need to hear more of his work in this domain. On the basis of this performance, Sawallisch clearly pussy-whips the likes of Harnoncourt (poor bugger), Chailly, Haitink, Wand, Maazel, Bohm and Jochum (EMI, not DG or Tahra where he is in much better form).
Seek and you shall find.