BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major

by | May 29, 2007 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major

Performers: Cleveland Orchestra cond. by Franz Welser-Moest 
Studio: EuroArts DVD 2055918 [Distr. by Naxos]
Video: Enhanced for 16:9 Color
Audio: PCM Stereo
Length: 75 minutes
Extras: Welser-Moest in Conversation (13 minutes)
Rating:****

I saw and heard Franz Welser-Moest (b. 1960) in Atlanta with the ASO in the 1980s, and even then, the Atlanta Symphony musicians predicted the lean, lanky Austrian would have a major career in music. While he had, at best, a bumpy tenure with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, his authoritarian sensibilities have some tradition in Cleveland. Since the 2002/2003 season, Welser-Moest has led the Cleveland Orchestra, and their appearance at the St. Florians basilica during the Linz Festival to record the Fifth Symphony in (September 12-13) 2006 ranks among the high points of their association. The authenticity of the performance derives from the long, narrow, high-arched splendor of the cathedral where Bruckner received much of his own musical training.

Directed by Felix Breisach, the video of the performance captures both the majesty and the flowing momentum of this energetic exercise in polyphony, what Bruckner called “my contrapuntal masterpiece.” There is little that is stodgy or even “pietistic” about Welser-Moest’s conception of the work, as it often assumes a feverish, all-too-human, earthy quality. Interesting camera placement, as behind the back and below the first violins and cellos, shoot upward at Welser-Moest, framed in high relief, a la Eisenstein’s portraits of great political personages in Russian history. The ensemble of the Cleveland Orchestra is aurally splendid, executing the softest of ppp markings to the triple fortes of the high brass, kept exceedingly busy in the outer movements. If there is a “cathedral sound,” it comes in the great Adagio, where a radiant glow permeates the celli and basses. Respecting the alla breve indication for the opening of the Adagio, Welser-Moest moves the music at a steady, sonorously rich pace. Lovely woodwind interchanges punctuate the grandiose affect of the hymnody episodes. The culminating melos contains elements of the divine and the pagan, the pilgrim and the voluptuary. 

The rustic, countrified Scherzo, which occasionally becomes quite frenetic, moves us visually to various interiors of St. Florians, the intricate porcelains and statuary, the window frescoes, the vaulted ceilings, the inlaid friezes, the gilt and bronzed cherubim. The laendler-like middle section canters in dreamy security in the midst of the frenzied tempo primo. Down to earth, literally, as the camera descends to the marcato gait of the opening materials. The tempo accelerates at a dizzying speed, and the music tumbles outward, stops on a dime for a subito ppp, then forward to march us towards the convulsions of the finale. Even the Adagio begins briskly, with hints of the Adagio still trailing after it. The cellos begin the contrapuntal intricacies, which quickly expand and infiltrate the upper strings and brass. The camera from way back of the cathedral pans the orchestra and audience in one sustained long shot, then in close for a bassoon and trombone segue. Another period of violin-led counterpoint sends the camera aloft once more. By the time we achieve the throes of the coda, the organ-based layering of sound has become quite colossal, the rhetorical inevitability awesome.

The thirteen minute interview with Welser-Moest shows him touring the basilica, contemplating the inscribed grave of Bruckner, commenting on the special aura of the place. He notes how the sound of the Cleveland Orchestra has grown lean, pellucid, the right transparent mix for Bruckner. He recalls his love for the Bruckner Second Symphony, from an old Volkmar Andreae LP. “I have tried to bring something of myself to this orchestra,” quips Welser-Moest, and like Bruckner’s music, that is a contradiction – a mix of superiority and humility, held in an artistic balance.

— Gary Lemco

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