Bruckner: Symphony No. 5 (CD review)

Christian Thielemann, Munich Philharmonic. DG 00289 477 5377.

Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony is not exactly the most manageable work in the classical orchestral repertoire. It is so big and unwieldy that no one wanted to play it in Bruckner’s own time, and not even the composer heard his original 1878 version in his lifetime. After conductors performed many truncated editions, it was only in 1935 that the public finally got to hear the original version. The poor thing is still something of a slow starter and among the least-recorded of the composer’s nine symphonies.

Anyway, Christian Thielemann’s way with it makes it seem even longer by his playing it more slowly than usual. Certainly, this brings out all the lofty, dramatic qualities of music, making it sound far more like Wagner than Mahler or Richard Strauss, fellows whose music critics sometimes compare to Bruckner’s. Indeed, under Thielemann the symphony times out at almost eighty-three minutes, yet, surprisingly, it fits on a single CD. The wonders of modern compression, I guess.

The first two movements alone take up some forty-two minutes, and if you can get through them (especially the long, ambiguous first movement), the third and fourth movements are a delight. After such deep, dark, heavy, and solemn opening movements, the Scherzo and Finale are breaths of fresh air. Thielemann’s strong suit is his ability to sustain the listener’s attention through most of the first half, leaving the second half to Bruckner. Thielemann maintains a firm concentration and a secure passion throughout, no matter how slow things get.

I wouldn’t say this displaces my first two choices in the work, however. I still think Sinopoli’s DG recording sounds more strongly characterized and Klemperer’s EMI recording the better sonically. DG recorded Thielemann’s performance live (as they did Sinopoli’s), and the result has a certain dull veneer covering it, although the engineers miked it reasonably close up. By comparison, the Klemperer sonics are much clearer and more open. The downside to Klemperer is that he’s more wayward and quixotic, and Thielemann is more straightforward and consistent. Maybe Sinopoli represents the best of both worlds.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa