Slow Food for the Ears: Thielemann in Bruckner's 5th 

(published first at ionarts)

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A. Bruckner, Symphony No. 5, Thielemann / MuPhil
Slow food for the ears – that could or should be the motto for Bruckner enjoyment. In times of where everyone seems to cater (rather than discourage) shorter and shorter attention spans, an 80-some minute Bruckner symphony seems more anachronistic than ever. Fortunately the Prussian conductor Christian Thielemann is not prone to pander to popular culture where he does not see it to be an improvement – and he takes his time with Bruckner. His recording of the 5th Symphony is taken from the live performance of his ‘inaugural’ concert with the Munich Philharmonic last Summer – and was one of the the musical and social highlights of the cultural year in southern Germany.

Having taken over from James Levine, Thielemann is expected to carry on the tradition of the Orchestra with such Romantic heavy-weights as Richard Strauss, Hans Pfitzner and, of course, Anton Bruckner. The choice of the 5th symphony – no matter what he claims in the interesting liner notes – must have been deliberate. The orchestra premiered the work’s original version, Furtwängler chose it as his first work with the orchestra and the great Bruckner conductor Sergeiu Celibidache, who headed the Munich Philharmonic for 17 years until his death in 1996, inaugurated its new hall, the “Gasteig” in 1985 with Bruckner’s 5th.

The Deutsche Grammophon engineers achieved a feat in putting the performance onto one disc (cutting applause and shortening breaks between movements) which is now the longest playing compact disc in their catalogue at 82:34. This is the third longest Bruckner 5th in my collection – topped only by two versions of Celibidache who takes a whopping 88 and 84 minutes with the same orchestra.

With the history of the players involved and the perfect match of the lush Munich sound with Thielemann’s strengths, this was the disc I had most looked forward to receiving – especially after the rave reviews of the concert. But of course anything this highly anticipated has a difficult time to live up to those expectations – and this is no different in that it did not shoot straight to the top of my list.

Some critics and conductors have lamented the fact that Bruckner, Wagner and Mahler have been slowed down continuously over the years – in an ill-conceived attempt to instill extra reverie into those works. There is much to be said about that attitude (especially in Wagner!), but ultimately it still depends on the performance whether an approach works or not. But slowness isn’t Thielemann’s problem. His approach works and works very well. His problem is that I expected the world from the recording and he only delivers upper Austria and Bavaria. His problem is: Celibidache.

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I love and revere Günter Wand’s recordings of the 5th, Guiseppe Sinopoli’s Dresden account is a wonder, every recording with Jochum’s has undeniable qualities. Still, no one approaches the drive (even at those slow speeds – compare his 24:14 Adagio to the 15:49 that Wand needs), the sound and the sheen that the eccentric Rumanian elicits from his players. But if the overall impression does not warrant top recommendation, Thielemann still has moments of unrivalled beauty. The re-introduction of the principal theme in the first movement at 10:50 is painfully beautiful, slowly builds towards another one of those mini-climaxes which are all lined up like pearls on a string and his string instruments shimmer behind the note-by-note climb of the woodwinds. At 12:12 there is a mighty, majestic free rolling thunder that gets picked up by the brass in playing that belies the one-performance live recording. One important element in a recording of the 5th is the audibility of the opening plucked bass-line. In the concert hall, you can see, feel and sense them, even if they are difficult to hear. There is no such help on a recording and engineers should therefore raise the level in the beginning. Fortunately, the are audible (if still on the quiet side) on the Thielemann recording and only the EMI engineers of Celibidache’s recording make it even ‘easier’ to hear them.

The second movement’s broad melodic element is brought out nicely between 3:04 and 5:15 – for once not interrupted by Bruckner with some brass fanfare. It’s heaven and whipped cream with the pulsing horns behind the soaring strings, all propelled by the meticulous rhythmical sense of Thielemann’s who never lets ‘slow’ become plodding. This disc is surely one of the finest 5th out there – and since either Celibidache’s or Wand’s discs are not easily available in the U.S., only Sinopoli on DG is a serious rival. Conveniently, they are at different ends of the interpretive spectrum and therefore very complimentary. I happen to believe that you can’t have too many Bruckner 5th’s (I have ten, so far and have heard many others), and this is one of the four best recordings I have ever heard. If it were between adding a second or third Bruckner 5th to your collection over a new discovery, though, I’d strongly encourage the latter.

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