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Dip Your Ears, No. 73 (Bruckner 5th)

available at Amazon
A.Bruckner, Symphony No.5,
G.Wand/ MPhil
Profil PH06012

Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony was so daunting a challenge to Günter Wand, that foremost of Brucknerian conductors ever to have wielded the baton, that he did not dare tackle it until he was 62 years old. With the cathedral of the Eighth Symphony and the visionary Ninth Symphony, the Fifth is perhaps the most important, if not the most popular of Bruckner’s works… and just like those other symphonies, it does not necessarily reveal itself easily. I know that I tried numerous times, in vain, to grasp or even cherish the work, listening to Daniel Barenboim’s second recording. It was not until I heard excerpts of the Fifth in an interview with Wand (where the almost 90-year old man protested in shocking vigor against the “crime” that is the Schalk-Edition of the Fifth) that I was hooked. Since then the Fifth has become a small obsession of mine, which included tracking down most of the Wand recordings – none of which were available in the U.S., except as part of the complete WDR set.

With the latest release in Profil Hänssler’s new Günter Wand und die Münchner Philharmoniker Edition, this has finally changed. Recorded in 1995 and never issued until now (as it would have interfered with his own commercial recordings and commercial recordings of the Munich Philharmonic), this Profil Hänssler disc should be most welcome by music fans well beyond the small circle of aficionados that most of that label’s releases appeal to. (I have, for example, just sampled their issue of a superbly recorded 1949 (!) Katja Kabanova from Dresden – in German with the libretto translated by none other than Max Brod. A delightful curiosity that may, despite its qualities, not merit a review for the English-speaking readership of Ionarts on account of being too much of a curiosity item.)

The Munich Philharmonic might well be my favorite Bruckner Orchestra; my particular love for just about anything of Günter Wand is no secret. The result of this combination naturally comes with the highest expectation – and it matches them to a large degree. The sound is very good, if not necessarily much better than on the 1974 recording (issued on EMI/deutsche harmonia mundi as CDC 7 47746 2 in 1977). But what the live-atmosphere (subtle coughs and other audience/conductor noises are audible; as is ‘the space’ around the music) takes away, incredible orchestra detail makes more than up for.

The interpretation in this account is a little weightier than the early recording or his 1996 recording (live) with the Berlin Philharmonic (RCA 09026 68503 2), even though the timings scarcely differ between the three recordings. (The Introduction takes 20:10 in ’74, 20:55 in ’95, and 21:31 in ’96. The Adagio clocks in at 15:49, 15:38, and 16:26, respectively. The Scherzo lasts 14:13, 14:02, and 14:20; the Finale 24:08, 25:02, and 24:57.)

Except in his interpretations of the Eighth, where he is unsurpassed, anyway, Wand never stoops to particular slowness to achieve gravitas. Or, for that matter, his Bruckner is never particularly grave in the first place. Rather, it’s well organized and structured, impossibly compelling… and all while remaining unassuming in a way that Sergiu Celibidache – the other great Bruckner conductor with the Munich Philharmonic – never is or tries to be. This is particularly notable in the Adagio (after all marked “sehr langsam” – very slow) where Wand is faster than most other conductors. Take Sinopoli, at 18:48, for example, or Karajan (DG) at 21:26, or at the very extreme, Celibidache (EMI – made two years before this recording) at 24:14 (!) who all allow for a much, much broader take.

It happens to be broadness that I very much like in the Fifth – and not surprisingly I think that Celibidache’s “slow burn” interpretation is the finest for my ear’s palate. Of course, that recording, too, is currently unavailable in the U.S. (as is, for the time being, Sinopoli’s ‘dark horse’ of a Fifth, also recommendable). Since Thielemann’s Fifth is nearly as slow as Celibidache, but does not keep the music together quite as well, I recommended it as a good, if not ideal, choice for this symphony in a recent review. Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s RCA recording would be the other obvious choice of what is available in good record stores in this country (to the extent there are any left of those…).

With Wand’s recording entering the fray, this choice has been happily enriched with another top contender that anyone who loves Wand (in Bruckner or outside) can happily grab. (Unlike with the Profil Hänssler issue of his 9th,(stunning some critics, more of modest quality to others) there no serious complaint about sound quality or orchestral playing to be made here. Choosing between the three Wand recordings (a bit of a mute point for the American shopper), there is little to give or take between them. Berlin, too, has audience noises – which are obviously absent from the ’74 recording. The resonance is greater than in the Munich recording, the orchestra more present and closer… almost too close. At the same effort or expense, I would probably go for Berlin before Munich, followed by the Cologne account – but the difference is slight. Too slight to resist holding out for the Berlin recording when the Munich one is at a good record store around your corner.

P.S. Volume Three in this series features another work Wand has excelled with on record: Schubert's Ninth Symphony. A "must" for the Wand-fanatic, but the RCA recording is in print, easily available, less expensive, and with better sound quality... leaving it untouched as one of the very best available modern recordings of that symphony.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Munich Philharmonic did not release any recordings in the early to mid 1990s, so interference with their own commercial recordings would not have been an issue. Only after Celibidache's death in 1997 they had started issuing live recordings. Nonetheless, Celi was not against his orchestra issuing recordings under other maestros, if only because of the extra income for his musicias.

But yes, there would have been conflicts with Wand's NDR recordings.