New Bruckner validates old saw about conductors

Classical Sounds

August 25, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Bruckner, Symphony No. 5, performed by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Claudio Abbado conducting (Deutsche Grammophon 445 879-2).

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Bruckner, Symphony No. 5, performed by the Vienna Philharmonic, Wilhelm Furtwangler conducting (EMI Classics 5 65750 2).

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Bruckner, Symphony No. 6, performed by the NDR Symphony Orchestra, Gunter Wand conducting (BMG Classics 60361-2-RC).

There's plenty of rubbish about the symphonies of Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler and, according to one piece of nonsense, conductors who are successful interpreters of one composer are usually less successful with the other.

Claudio Abbado's new recording of Bruckner's Symphony No. 5 -- the latest installment in his Vienna Philharmonic cycle of this composer's symphonies -- suggests there may be some truth to this old saw, however.

This superb Mahler interpreter simply doesn't seem completely comfortable with Bruckner. It's hard to say exactly what the problem is: Abbado elicits fine playing from the orchestra, and his lucid view of the music's architecture makes this symphony seem less forbidding than usual.

What's absent is not merely grandeur, but the feeling that the composer's gigantic musical spans are growing in the way Gothic cathedrals grew in the high Middle Ages: piece by piece in generation after generation.

In Abbado's otherwise perfectly acceptable performance, things seem somewhat more manufactured in the 20th-century sense. The listener feels that, instead of being made from arduously hand-cut stones, the symphony has been constructed from prefabricated slabs of concrete.

Despite its sonic limitations -- its provenance is a tape of a broadcast during the 1951 Salzburg Festival -- Furtwangler's performance has exactly what Abbado's lacks.

This great German conductor makes the symphony's contrasted episodes and tonalities slam against each other like tectonic plates in the earth's crust. It is a reading that does not merely strive to suggest a cataclysm; it is itself one.

Although Bruckner's Sixth Symphony is a more likable piece than its predecessor -- its textures are more transparent and its sentiments less tortured -- it has never, for some reason, enjoyed the popularity it deserves.

This is Wand's third recording of the work (his second with the Hamburg-based North German Radio Symphony) and the reason that it has been issued, according to BMG's liner notes, is that the conductor has corrected a mistake in a first-horn part in the opening movement.

What's really important, however, is that this superb performance is even better than Wand's previous recording -- DTC which was marred by a slightly heavy-handed start of the first movement.

The orchestral playing may not be as refined as it is in other versions -- notably that of Christoph von Dohnanyi with the Cleveland Orchestra and Herbert Blomstedt with the San Francisco Symphony -- but Wand's account creates a real sense of awe and unfolds with majestic logic.

Pub Date: 8/25/96

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