Spring Symphonies: 1/60 Bruckner: Symphony No. 5

Every day of April I offer you a symphony to try.....

Spring Symphonies

Bruckner: Symphony No. 5

The quest to introduce you to my favourite symphonies in April starts with a bit of an oddity. The symphony is often a modest construction of high value melodically compact and easily hummable. The fifth in Bruckner's canon is a remarkable work which is neither compact nor hummable. For three quarters of it's duration Bruckner lays out valuable components explores their every nook and cranny and confines his explorations to their limits.

It is a work which I fear has an austere start which puts new listeners on their guard. There are too many organ-like blasts of brass punctuate its progress in a disconcerting way. But it's long melodies so are heart-felt and wear a love-lorn quality despite Bruckner' s compositional asceticism. The heaven lengths of the Adagio (2nd Movement) yield some of the most beautiful music that Bruckner very put on paper. A rich deep harmonic rush of noble sentiment which is on a par with his Master (Wagner) tunes is all enveloping and timeless. The scherzo is usually the more accessible part of a Bruckner symphony and this one - though rather dry and bookish - is crammed with quicksilver moments to catch the ear.

But ultimately the great trick of this symphony - like the great trick of all great symphonies - is to take its material and combine it in a way that makes it bigger and better than what proceeded it. And in the last quarter Bruckner takes his raw materials, patches of golden cloth and makes a great collage: brilliant, powerful and surprising. He lunges into the unknown without hesitation which convinces one of his genius or his piety. Either way the harmonic, contrapuntal and rhythmical invention on these familiar themes is greater than anything that has gone before in a symphony of thematic exploration.

The symphony bursts the surly bonds of earth and like Sibelius' Fifth takes a monumental flight. Unlike Sibelius' work, Bruckner's Fifth is unrevised and in the form we know it now, unadulterated by the later hands which ruined symphonies Nos 2 & 3 (but improved Symphony No 8).  

It is hard to get one's head around Bruckner's vision in the last 15 minutes or so - the familiarity required of the material makes it a symphony which rewards rehearing. It swings into urgent life with a series of musical devices which mark the course crudely at first -  direct and almost too technical. The detail gradually reveals it's weight though - the layers feel transparent at first difficult to distinguish but once you realise the goal. After 10 or so auditions each layer yields it's true musical place in the grandeur design. Bruckner's mastery of pace created through the tension of the harmonic, melodic and rhythmical byplay - his opulent orchestration interrupted as though he were teasing out our emotions.  When it arrives the hard won victory is majestic - a chorale which lights the very heavens completing a diverting but intellectually challenging journey. The exhilaration here is enormous - growing each time I listen.  Some take it further adding 11 extra brass to this oration and blowing the roof off. It's not necessary - the effect is in the pit of your stomach and profoundly emotional too.

Bruckner dedicated this immense work to the Empire's Minister for Education - not so daft when I consider it's many many years since this symphony bowled me off my feet and even today I'm still learning about it.

Try Jochum (live performance if you can find one), Karajan, Sinopoli, Barenboim (BPO) or a video of Celibadache (singing along with the finale).

Here's a YouTube link to that great Brucknerian Stan Skrowaczewski



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