In my wildest dreams, I can imagine making love to Elizabeth Taylor and catching hell from Richard Burton, as Bob Dylan once put it. In a more sober frame of reference, I can imagine the look of delight spreading across Bach's face as he turns the pages of the score of Bruckner's Fifth Symphony, astonished by the conception and execution of such gargantuan counterpoint and the enormous orchestral forces it employs. But one real-life fact I cannot wrap my head around is that after having completed this symphony by January 1878, fully cognizant of its strength and stature, Bruckner never made an effort to have an orchestra play it. That would be like Shakespeare writing "King Lear" and hiding the manuscript under the mattress of his second-best bed.
Perhaps Bruckner knew what he was doing, though, for who knows what he would have made of the only orchestral concert that took place during his lifetime -- conducted by Franz Schalk in 1894 -- had he not been too sick to attend. Schalk re-orchestrated the whole symphony to make it sound more "Wagnerian" and cut 122 measures from the Finale. No telling, either, what Bruckner would have thought of this all-regions Blu-ray of the Fifth in which Nikolaus Harnoncourt, then 83, made his final appearance as guest conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra on Oct. 25 and Oct. 27, 2013.
Harnoncourt has made a career of being provocative -- or his career has been a provocative one, whichever way you wish to say it. And so it seems consistent for this conductor from whom consistency could never be expected to close with such an unconventional assault on one of the highest summits of symphonic literature. The back cover says Harnoncourt uses the 2005 third revised Nowak edition, but the enclosed booklet makes no mention of it. (Robert Haas issued such a fine edition of Bruckner's original Fifth in 1935 Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major in Full Score (Dover Music Scores) that when Leopold Nowak took over preparation of the scores for the International Bruckner Society in 1946, his changes were minuscule. So the choice of Haas or Nowak in the Fifth is moot.) As it happens, the writer of the liner notes seems not to have even heard Harnoncourt's performance, describing the Fifth as a symphony "which lasts over eighty minutes" when Harnoncourt barrels his way through in only 66.
The first movement is given a time on the back cover of 20:15, but the first minute and 15 seconds are taken up first by that precarious trek down the stairway at the Concertgebouw that conductors are forced to take and then Harnoncourt's settling in before the orchestra. Nineteen minutes is a little fast for that opening movement but not inordinately so, and on the whole, it comes off OK. The Concertgebouw has been around this block a few times before. It's the second movement Adagio where Harnoncourt veers off course.
How slow (or fast) is an Adagio? Bruckner doesn't provide a metronome suggestion, simply writing "Sehr langsam" -- very slow. To most conductors, 112-114 beats per minute is not "very slow," but that's the tempo Harnoncourt chooses, conducting "alla breve" in two beats per measure rather than four and whipping out the movement in a total time of 12:30. If this is revisionist Bruckner, I prefer to remain unrevised. The result of Harnoncourt's tempo is disconcerting. At around the 24-minute mark on the Blu-ray, two young first violin players start smiling at each other as they're playing measure 51 (marked "kurz" -- with short bowing) and measure 53 ("spiccato" -- lightly bouncing the bow on the strings). This is when I thought of the young Mendelssohn's wonderful music to "A Midsummer Night's Dream" because Harnoncourt's "Adagio" sounds more like a mischievous, pumped-up prank from the magical fairyland Mendelssohn conjures than a deeply spiritual meditation whose moving theme is taken from the Kyrie and Agnus Dei of Bruckner's first mass, in D Minor. An Adagio of 17-18 minutes is within reason. Karajan takes 21:25; Celibidache, 23:55.
If you've seen the version currently posted on YouTube of Harnoncourt's Bruckner Fifth, you might notice something different about what's on this Blu-ray. I don't know which of the two nights the YouTube video documents, but the horns split notes badly at the Adagio's big climax. On the Blu-ray (at 32:16), though, the horns play perfectly. I never saw the splice.
And so what should follow this "Adagio" but a Scherzo whose tread is slower -- 108 bpm -- not faster. At 13:04, it's quicker than ideal. It only seems too slow because Harnoncourt has zipped through the Adagio. Paced rather fast overall (21:54), the Finale starts off well enough, with Harnoncourt nicely preparing the initial presentation of the chorale, which arrives at 55:01 with simple grandeur. The first tier of the movement's climax at 1:08:01 is strong, with horns sounding clearly in the background. But when the chorale returns at measure 583 (1:08:41 in this recording), it's hardly noticeable. It's marked triple forte (fortississimo), and everybody is supposed to maintain that volume the rest of the way ("bis zum Ende" -- until the end). It seems even the eminent Concertgebouw, however, can run out of gas. Maybe Harnoncourt's pushing the tempo from the outset has worn out the musicians more than Celibidache's Sergiu Celibidache or Eugene Jochum's A. Bruckner: Symphony No. 5 expansiveness. Hearing the Bruckner Fifth should be an uplifting, refreshing experience, but this one became tiring for me to listen to by this point, just as the music is rising to the pinnacle for which it has been aiming all along. Odd that faster tempos can actually make a work seem longer.
At measure 588 (1:08:53), at measure 604 (1:09:09), and once again at 1:09:26, the horns that should ring out rapturously are pianissimo, not fortississimo. The rise to the final climax at 1:09:46 is barely double forte -- the orchestra's really sounding bushed now -- and at 1:10:13, the trumpet that carries the top line to the end is lost in the soup at measure 618. Somebody loved it, though. The second the final note is reached at 1:10:32, a wiseguy in the audience -- could it be the same fellow who did this at the end of Vladmir Jurowski's concert recording of the Shostakovich Sixth Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 6 & 14 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra? -- doesn't give the rest of the audience an opportunity to savor what should be the exalted view from the mountaintop but butts in by yelling "brav-O," showing everyone he's been a participant in the proceedings, not a mere spectator, and accenting the last syllable to show off his superiority. Please.
Perhaps the dim lighting of the Concertgebouw contributes to the somewhat dull video quality. The back cover says it's 1080p24; it looks more like 720. The audio is DTS-HD MA 5.0 -- not 5.1 -- and supposedly at 96kHz/24-bit resolution. The sound seems constricted, however, compressed sort of like Walter Legge's and Otto Klemperer's Brahms symphonies that eliminate anything too soft or too loud, leaving everything kind of mezzo-forte in the middle. That's not how Bruckner ought to sound.
On its product page, by the way, Amazon misidentifies this Blu-ray as restrictive to Region 2, apparently not realizing that for several years now, music companies have issued only Blu-rays that are playable worldwide, as is this one.
More satisfying Bruckner Fifths can be found on CD -- Karajan's 1976 studio recording Bruckner: Symphony No.5 in its 2014 single-disc Japanese SHM-CD issue, Jochum, Kurt Eichhorn in a 1990 concert from St. Florian Bruckner: Symphonie No. 5 on Capriccio and a better 1993 studio recording Bruckner: Symphony 5 on the Japanese Camerata label, and in a bargain set Bruckner: The Symphonies conducted by former Karajan assistant Roberto Paternostro (also released as a single CD). On video, there is the above-mentioned Celibidache concert in Munich in 1985 and -- best of them all -- Christian Thielemann's 2015 Blu-ray Bruckner: Symphony No. 5 [Blu-ray] from Dresden.
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