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I believe that the first “flowering” of Anton Bruckner’s
maturity as a composer is represented by his
“Fifth Symphony,” which was completed in 1876 and
received a “touch up” in 1878. Here, his unique vision of
expanded symphonic structure “jelled” for the first time.
Although episodic with many digressions, there is a
grand master plan at work. At a running time of
approximately 75 minutes, it’s huge and sprawling, and
I can understand why Bruckner’s music has been
described as being ” . . . inlaid with gold, but
weighted with lead.” Repeated listening of the piece
is necessary to grasp Bruckner’s intentions. If you’d
like a greater appreciation of this symphony,
I’d recommend reading a discussion of it in the 1992
edition of Robert Simpson’s book, The Essence of Bruckner,
wherein he convincingly illustrated and illuminated
Bruckner’s master plan. As you may remember,
Simpson (1921-1997) was an excellent composer
in his own right.

Recently, I finished watching a DVD performance
of the “Fifth Symphony” by the Lucerne Festival
Orchestra, under the baton of Claudio Abbado. The work
was recorded at the KKL Luzern Concert Hall in 2011
and released the following year, under the
Accentus Music label.

As with every other DVD performance that I’ve seen
from this legendary all-star ensemble, the dynamic
range, blend and camaraderie are second to none,
with fine recorded sound. The last factor was crucial,
as the “Fifth Symphony” has an unusually wide
dynamic range. One example is the pizzicato strings
at the beginning, which require playing at the
threshold of audibility. In fact, I’d advise any listener
to experiment with their volume control, or risk
being blasted from his or her chair during the
fortissimo outbursts!

In 1998, I was privileged to hear a live performance
of the work at Carnegie Hall, with Maestro Abbado
leading the Berlin Philharmonic. I remember that the
orchestra played so quietly at the beginning that
I wondered if the loud passages would be sufficiently
powerful. I needn’t have worried! It was a great
orchestra playing in a fine hall, and the Lucerne Festival
Orchestra rendition on DVD was equally impressive.
As always, the string sections were huge, and similar
to their performance of Bruckner’s “Seventh Symphony”
on DVD, the woodwinds were doubled, while the
brass section was not, with exception of the first horn.

This lovingly shaped performance achieved a
wonderful blend and a fine degree of transparency
in the key moments. Add to this a fine overall grasp
of the structure, which is no easy feat, and you
have a very satisfying experience, leaving little
to be desired.

However, I realize that a work on this scale is certainly
open to different interpretations, and some people
may not rate this performance as “definitive.” This is
the only DVD performance that I’ve seen of the work
thus far, and I’m clearly impressed. I’d advise you to
check it out, and judge for yourself. You could
certainly do a lot worse!

 

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