Composer: Anton Bruckner
Orchestra: Vienna Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Herbert von Karajan
Number of Discs: 1
Format: FLAC (image+cue)
Label: Orfeo D’or
Size: 268 MB
Symphony No. 5 in B flat (“Tragic”; “Church of Faith”; “Pizzicato”), WAB 105 (various versions)
Composed by Anton Bruckner
Performed by Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Conducted by Herbert von Karajan
01. Introduction: Adagio, Allegro
02. Adagio, Sehr langsam
03. Scherzo: Molto vivace (Schnell), Trio: Im gleichen Tempo
04. Finale: Adagio, Allegro
the greatest Bruckner 5th ever recorded
I review this performance finally after having had it for about fifteen years and considered and reconsidered it many times in comparison to Karajan’s Berlin Philharmonic recording that was made in 1976 (22 years later), as well as in comparison to the recordings of this work by the other major Bruckner conductors who have recorded this work: Skrowaczewski, Sawallisch, Paternostro, and Matacic. (Those are, in my view, the only worthwhile interpreters of Bruckner — other than Karajan — who have recorded this symphony.)
My comments here will be especially focused upon my disagreements with the review by “Santa Fe Listener,” because I believe that that person got a number of things very wrong, albeit one cannot argue matters of taste. The reason I do this is that Santa Fe Listener gave only four stars to what I increasingly have come to recognize to be the greatest-ever recorded performance of this work. To me, this is a five-star performance if ever a performance was recorded of this work that merits five stars.
Unlike Santa Fe Listener, I prefer the Vienna Symphony Orchestra over the Berlin Philharmonic here because of the greater warmth of its sound and the considerably more sensuous execution of the pianissimi, which here are shaped with more refinement and detail than the Berliners achieve. Furthermore, the machine-like hardness of the Berliners’ sound is also, to me, less appropriate, because Bruckner was, at least until his last two symphonies (8&9), distinctively Austrian, not more nordic than that, not so Germanic as the Berliners sounded under Karajan. The inorganic coldness of the Berlin-Karajan sound was fine in Bruckner’s last two symphonies, but I definitely think not in the first six. (The 6th was perhaps Bruckner’s most Alpine symphony, and the least amenable to the harsh Karajan-Berlin sound. The 6th has lots of snow and evergreen forests, but not even the slightest glints of stainless steel.)
The sonics of this recording are fine, especially compared to the harshness of the Karajan-Berlin sound.
Whereas Santa Fe Listener objected to the 21:26 length of the Adagio in the Berlin recording, I do not, but consider the time-difference versus the present 18:39 performance to be inconsequential, especially because the absence of the sonic harshness here produces an equally meditative resulting effect. To me, any isolated reference to the speed of a passage or movement is misleading on its face, because everything in music results from the interrelationships, never from parts in isolation from each other.
Where this performance achieves greater heights than the Karajan-Berlin one is in the monumental closing movement, where Karajan lets it breathe big, as compared to the Berlin recording where he tries to race the end in order to hype the “excitement.” The excessive speedup of the coda seems to me to be a real let-down after the previous 75 minutes of buildup, as if one has finally reached the mountaintop only to see a disappointing sight on the other side of the mountain. In this Vienna performance, the end comes as being awesome, just like a Bruckner ending ought to sound.
This performance by Karajan was one of the greatest Bruckner performances by the person who owned Bruckner’s music more than anyone else who has recorded it. If Karajan hadn’t raced the end in his Berlin recording of the 5th, then I would consider that performance to have been competitive with this one, but he did, and so I think that this one is clearly the greatest-ever recorded performance of the Bruckner 5th. This symphony needs to breathe big at the end, not to sound constricted.
The Sawallisch and the Paternostro recordings would be nearly as good as the two Karajan recordings if they were as charismatic, or as intense, but they’re not. The Skrowaczewski recording is perhaps the 3rd-best performance, after the two by Karajan, but it’s edgier than Bruckner and is therefore not as authentic, in my view. Also, of course, Skrowaczewski wasn’t as charismatic in his style, and thus again the Karajan performances have a bit more impact. But especially the Karajan-Vienna one does: It was Karajan at the very peak of his form. The Matacic performance raced a number of the climaxes and is therefore perhaps the least effective recorded performance of Bruckner from Matacic, who was otherwise one of the best Bruckner conductors.
Bottom line here: This recording is the one to have if you’re going to have only one. If you’re going to have more than one, then the Skrowaczewski, Sawallisch, and Paternostro, might be considered, along with the Karajan-Berlin, as being the other four that are worth at least four stars. But the Karajan-Vienna performance is, in my opinion, clearly worth five stars, if anything is.