As a point of reference for this brief review, know that I was introduced to the symphonies of Bruckner mostly through Otto Klemperer's commercial recordings with the New Philharmonia Orchestra on EMI/Angel. As is the case with many, it was Bruckner's majestic and tuneful Fourth (heard on late evening radio) that initially turned me on to the composer, and in my case, the conductor as well. From there it was a progression to the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh. Let me say that if it wasn't for a bit of persistence and curiosity on my part as a serious listener, my Brucknerian excursion might well have ended after hearing this Fifth.
Here was Bruckner as the musical equivalent of reading War and Peace, or perhaps more apropos to this performance, of Joyce's inscrutable Ulysses. Klemperer's conception of the Fifth is one of rocklike strength and manifested in a great deal of deliberate, staccato phrasing. The harmonic details are laid bare, but the experience is akin to climbing Yosemite's El Capitan - step by careful step. The approach works to fine effect in the opening movement as the measured argument unfolds and culminates compellingly. However, Klemperer's taut reins and deliberate manner undermine things in the succeeding Adagio movement and the Scherzo that follows; lines begin to crumble somewhat as if parts of the orchestra want to "sing", but are simply not allowed. This results in a few noticeable lapses in ensemble, one instance so egregious as to wonder why there wasn't a retake. In any case, the overall effect through these two contrasting middle movements is one of a measured trot where there should often be a wild gallop; a plodding, drawn-out exegesis where there should be an extended, unbridled proclamation. Contrast this with almost any other performance, notably those of Jochum/Dresden or Dohnanyi/Cleveland, which in my opinion are rightly esteemed among cognoscenti.
The all-important Finale and its fugue elements are equally laid bare, all building and intersecting in Klemperer's unyielding reined-in manner, yet brought home convincingly and making the whole eighty-minute exercise worth the near excruciating wait. Still....
In good conscience, I can't recommend this recording to a novice listener; seasoned Brucknerites probably already know if it's palatable. I would also guess that this hardened and emphatic performance is venerated among fans of Klemperer as epitomizing the conductor in his later years. As for me, I purposely avoided Bruckner's Fifth for many years until I was suitably well-heeled to invest in other more flowing and varied recorded performances. Having returned to this recording the day of this writing, my opinion of it remains mostly unchanged.