Bruckner: Symphony No. 5 (SACD review)

Lance Friedel, London Symphony Orchestra. MSR Classics MS 1600.

I've said this before, but it bears repeating: listening to a Bruckner symphony can take patience. A lot of this has to do with the fact that Austrian organist and composer Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) wrote long, often massive symphonies. His musical output came in the middle of the nineteenth century, a little after Beethoven's time and overlapping early Mahler. We see Bruckner building on the longer works of Beethoven, especially the Ninth Symphony, and the more epic proportions of Wagner. Later, we would see Mahler adopting some of Bruckner's lengthier concepts.

And there's another part of the equation: Beyond hewing to the conventional four-movement structures of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Bruckner ventured into new harmonic, even dissonant styles. There are times when the listener must sit and wait almost in vain for a major thematic element to present itself, and then wait even longer for Bruckner to develop it. Nevertheless, when performed by the right people, Bruckner's music can be quite satisfying, reaching heights of spiritual ecstasy seldom attempted by other composers. Among the conductors who have brought me a personal measure of joy with their Bruckner recordings are Eugen Jochum, Otto Klemperer, Herbert von Karajan, Karl Bohm, Bruno Walter, Gunter Wand, Herbert Blomstedt, Bernard Haitink, and Sir Roger Norrington, among others.

Enter Lance Friedel. The first and only other time I had heard a recording by Maestro Friedel was on an album entitled Great Comedy Overtures, which I quite liked. While Friedel might not have been facing such demanding material in the overtures as he is on the present disc, he invested a good deal of enthusiasm in the project and offered up a frothy collection of lightweight tunes.

Here, Maestro Friedel tackles the formidable Symphony No. 5, which Bruckner wrote between 1875 and 1876, but which he never heard performed in his lifetime by an orchestra. (A non-authenticated version premiered in 1894, but Bruckner was too ill to attend.) The work didn't even get a complete commercial recording until 1937, when Karl Bohm did it with the Dresden Staatskapelle. All of this may seem surprising when you consider that the Fifth followed upon the success of his Fourth Symphony, but it's possible the composer never felt satisfied with the Fifth, leaving it uncompleted at his death. Various musical scholars edited it later, with Maestro Friedel using the version by Leopold Nowak from 1951. As time went on, people came to know the piece as the "Tragic," "Church of Faith," or the "Pizzicato" symphony.

Lance Friedel
Anyway, the work begins with a very slow, very soft introduction, so soft that on the present recording you may wonder when it's ever going to begin. But the slow pizzicato strings soon give way to an abrupt eruption fortissimo and then on through a series of harmonious passages to a heady Allegro, all of which Friedel handles smoothly, gracefully, and without undue fuss. In fact, this is among the more-lyrical interpretations you'll find, even though Friedel retains the music's stately, august outlines and ends the segment most nobly. What's more, the London Symphony is up to its usual high standards, even if they don't quite sound as lush or rich as the Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan.

Next, we have an Adagio: Sehr langsam, or a slow movement Bruckner expects the performers to take "very slowly," indeed. Interestingly, Bruckner uses the same basic themes for both the slow movement and the third-movement Scherzo, as well as alternating themes throughout the movement, and the juxtapositions make a fascinating experience, particularly as Friedel manages them. The following Scherzo itself moves along at a steadily contrasting pace under his direction, the tempos continually changing but effortlessly so. I have no doubt this section of the symphony must have inspired something in Mahler.

Like the first movement, Bruckner's finale begins slowly and softly, again with pizzicato strings soon permitting a moderate Allegro to develop. This has always been my favorite part of the symphony, and Maestro Friedel does it justice. While it dances and sparkles under Friedel's guidance on the one hand, it retains its regal grandeur throughout.

Even though the Fifth is a long symphony (Bruckner's second longest), Friedel's brisk but pleasurable handling of things brings it in at a little over seventy-three minutes, one of the quickest I've heard. Yet it never sounds particularly rushed or hurried. Although it may not convey all the spacious majesty of Klemperer's interpretation; the burnished glow of Karajan's realization; the mystery and atmosphere of Walter's, Wand's, or Blomstedt's versions; or the clean, direct lines of Haitink's reading, there is a fine sense of urgency about Friedel's account, captured in cogent, insistent, well-controlled rhythms and dynamics. It is definitely a disc I'll be returning to from time to time and one well worth a Bruckner fan's consideration.

Producer Tim Handley and engineer Phil Rowlands recorded the album at All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London in January 2014. They engineered it for hybrid SACD/CD playback, so one can listen to it in two-channel stereo or multichannel using an SACD player or two-channel stereo using a regular CD player. I listened in the SACD 2-channel mode.

My only quibble with the sound is minor: it's that occasionally it can appear a touch hard or edgy in the upper midrange. That said, it's mostly exemplary, with good detail, just the right amount of lower midrange warm, a decent but not over-pronounced stereo spread, a sweet hall ambience, a fine depth of image, respectably strong impact, and a healthy degree of overall transparency. It's among the better-recorded Bruckner Fifths I've heard.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:


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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