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