Classical CD Reviews

BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 5; Zander discusses Bruckner – Philharmonia Orchestra/Benjamin Zander, conductor – Telarc (2 CDs)

A noble try, though short of greatness—but it might just be enough considering the competition

Published on March 6, 2009

BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 5; Zander discusses Bruckner – Philharmonia Orchestra/Benjamin Zander, conductor – Telarc (2 CDs)
BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 5; Zander discusses Bruckner – Philharmonia Orchestra/Benjamin Zander, conductor – Telarc 80706 (2 CDs), 68:58, 79:56 ****:

The Bruckner Fifth is a really difficult piece to bring off properly, now as it was in Bruckner’s lifetime. The composer never heard this, the lone exception among his symphonies. At the time he was too old and plagued with the diseases that would take him two years later, and he could only read with great pleasure the account left him in a letter by his disciple Franz Schalk, who conducted it for the first time nearly 20 years after it was composed. That performance was rife with changes made by Schalk for the occasion, always interested in doing whatever it took to get Bruckner’s music before the public. For those fascinated, the Schalk version is available in a definitive recording by Hans Knappertsbusch on a Decca “Classic Sound” release, and it is one of the best Bruckner recordings ever made. For some the Schalk revisions are heresy; even the Decca notes mention “wholesale orchestral retouchings, shortened scherzo reprise, truncated finale and extra brass and percussion.” However it should be noted that with the exception of the last movement, where the form is actually changed from sonata form to more of an extended fugal movement, the cuts made were all of repeated material, and the orchestration changes are quite effective; Bruckner was no doubt thrilled by the glorious reception the music got, though even today it could be said that of the major works this one remains a tough nut to crack, and there have been relatively few great recordings of it.

Zander’s is not one either. Oh, there are many wonderful things about this reading, especially the integrated first movement and the deep, bass-heavy Philharmonia sound (Watford Coliseum, Watford England). But for me it is the rather lugubrious Adagio that doesn’t hold together, and at 16:00 is rather on the heavy-paced side. The scherzo and finale are really fine, and Zander has done his homework in making the thing hold together. The Philharmonia does suffer from some ragged entrances, and some of Zander’s phrasing may be questionable, but the criticism applied equally as well to his Mahler recordings, and in the end don’t really matter. Though this is not a “great” recording I don’t think we should hold that against it as there as so few good ones, and this one definitely fits that category.

If we compare it to Harnoncourt’s recent RCA we find a better paced Adagio in the Vienna reading, though the Harnoncourt is about four minutes longer than Zander’s and is considered a relatively fast reading. The RCA has beautifully-spaced surround sound, with a wide soundstage and impressive depth. The Telarc will be released on SACD near the end of March, so it is impossible to make that comparison yet; but knowing Telarc things will be done right.

Should you get this? Well, the Knappertsbusch is mandatory, Bruckner at his greatest even with the Schalk revisions, and it sounds wonderful too. But most people will need a second of the “normal” version (this was one of the few symphonies not extensively revised, and the choices are tougher. Furtwangler made a classic reading but the sound is substandard, and for me the greatness of the performance gets offset by the sound; brittle Mozart works better than brittle Bruckner. Klemperer also was a master of this music, either in the studio (EMI) or live (Testament).  Audiophiles will want the latest and greatest of this piece, and that means either Harnoncourt or Zander. I find it impossible to tell at the moment, but I like Zander’s ability to discover things that other conductors miss even though his conducting sometimes verges on the wayward. Okay, here it is: get the Knappertsbusch, wait until the end of March and then get this Zander on SACD. And then, for the sheer beauty of the sound, grab Harnoncourt at your next paycheck, assuming any of us will ever have such things again.

P.S. – The extra disc is an interesting 80 minutes of Zander rhetoric on the “Cathedral in Sound” sort of stuff that we have all been hearing about Bruckner’s music for so long. It’s very well thought out and interesting, but not that relevant to enjoying and understanding the work—take it with a grain of salt.

— Steven Ritter  

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