A Monumental Bruckner Five from Skrowaczewski and LPO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom   Bruckner:  London Philharmonic Orchestra / Stanislav Skrowaczewski (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London 31 10 05 (GD)    

Bruckner  Symphony No. 5 in B flat major


Although in Bruckner’s lifetime,  his Fifth Symphony was subjected to all manner of cuts and emendations, mostly by the conductor Franz Schalk, it has survived almost as Bruckner wrote it in the 1951 edition published by Leopold Nowak. Unfortunately,  Bruckner only ever heard a revised edition of his original in a two-piano version, being too ill to attend the premiere in Graz in April 1894.

It is arguable that the Fifth is Bruckner’s most classically formed and symmetrical symphony  in terms of tonal/harmonic structure and  the brilliant thematic linking from movement to movement. The final noble peroration incorporates  all the previous themes in the form of a massive B flat major chorale.

Skrowaczewski and the London Philharmonic have recently turned in some very impressive Bruckner renditions; an impressive 7th Symphony, and arguably an even more impressive No 3, both of which have both been recorded for the orchestra’s own label. Of course Skrowaczewski is a seasoned Bruckner conductor having performed his music all over Europe and North America for many years. It was amazing to see the 92 year old maestro mount the rostrum minus any aids, with only a sligtht limp and signs of a spinal declension. There was a miniature score on the podium desk which the maestro chose not to consult, conducting the huge symphony entirely from memory.  There were no signs of a chair which Haitink, at a mere 86, now uses in movement intervals.   This must be some kind of record, at least in the annals of Bruckner symphony performance.

Skrowaczewski has recorded all the Bruckner symphonies (including the the F minor ‘Study Symphony’) with the Saarbrucken Radio Symphony Orchestra (recently re named the ‘Deutsche Radio Philharmonic’). Indeed one of the delights here was the unique sound of that orchestra. The Saarland is situated on the southern borders of Alsace – Lorraine (once a German colony after the Prussian victory in the Franco-Prussian war (1870/71). Now (as with Alsace-Lorraine) both German and French are spoken in the Saarland, also a kind of hybrid linguistic mixture of French and German. As with the cross-over of linguistic dialects the sound of the Saarbrucken Orchetra is a fusion of both German and French orchestral textures; the string sound is wonderfully florid and diverse, strong, but having a French agility; also clear and Gallic sounding, beautifully shaped and prominent woodwind; the brass – especially the horns – sound more Germanic with a minimum of vibrato. Tonight the LPO didn’t quite match this diversity of sound. but apart from this they played mostly magnificently for Skrowaczewski, obviously having a great respect and empathy for and with him.

One basic reason why this performance was so memorable was to do with Skrowaczeski’s understanding of the tempo relationships in Bruckner. If one takes the trouble to study what is left of Bruckner’s notes and original autograph scores (as all conductors worthy of their profession should do) one will constantly find markings such as ‘Bewegt’ (with movement), and ‘doch nicht schleppend’ (‘not dragging’). Skrowaczeski understands, as many others do not, that after the opening ‘Adagio’ , Bruckner asks for an ‘Allegro’. Although Bruckner marks the second movement ‘Adagio: ‘Sehr langsam’ (‘Very slow’) the perceptive conductor (like Skrowaczewski tonight) can see that the harmonic/tonal layout of the movement demands an ‘Adagio’ with an underlying pulse, with movement. And Skrowaczewski understands the importance of this in the movements thematic linkage to the ‘”Molto vivace’ third movement which has the same home key and rhythmic pattern as the ‘Adagio,’ D minor. Each movement has an overall inter-connectivity to the whole symphony and Skrowaczewski masterfully fused the D minor, D major syncopations in the first movement’s development section – juxtaposing ‘block’ motives in the form of brass chorales with new harmonies in complex cross- rhythms between brass/woodwind and wild string figurations – to the blazing D major/B flat major first movement coda.

As already noted,  Skrowaczewski never let the ‘Adagio’ drag or sag, thus sustaining a wonderful  pulse and arch of sound leading  quite inevitably to the concluding chorales, alternating between ‘fortissimo’ and ‘pianissimo’ in quite remote tonal clusters, making the pianissimo coda and resolution in D major all the more moving.

The D minor Scherzo is Bruckner’s most elaborated statement in this form. Like no other Bruckner Scherzo (actually rarely a joke in Bruckner) is there such tonal/thematic correspondence between the extended development section and the trio proper, which takes its ‘ländler’-like sway in 2/4 time from the suggested ‘ländler’ ryhthms of the preceding section. Skrowaczewski and the orchestra articulated all this with the utmost precision and perception. Overall, Skrowaczewski brought out the underlying dark, even gnomic, tone of the movement, a tone arising from Bruckner’s complex juxtaposition of the movement’s D minor/B flat major  structure. Towards the coda of the scherzo there was a slight lapse in concentration. the orchestra almost playing out of sync with Skrowaczewski’s beat, but this only lasted a fraction of a second and things were soon back on track. I doubt whether many in the audience even noticed it?

I said that Bruckner’s scherzo didn’t really exude much in the way of ‘joke’ material. But in the opening of the huge last movement (which takes it’s cue from Beethoven’s Ninth in restating the preceding first two movements’ main themes) Skrowaczewski really pointed the ‘keck’ (cheeky) clarinet answers to each entonement of past themes – sounding a bit like something out of ‘Till Eulenspiegel’. The main ‘Allegro moderato’ thrust of this movement is Bruckner’s great and masterful exercise in counterpoint. Here every fugal entry, every chorale interpolation came over with the greatest resonance and clarity. By the end of the vast development section, which concludes (only partially)  in a great baroque sounding ascending theme and variation in brass/woodwind/string canon from Dminor to D major/B flat major, I was astonished that I could hear so much woodwind and string detail, usually obscured in the great  onrush of  tutti orchestral sound. Although Skrowaczewski meticulously observed the movements wide range of dynamic registers from pp to fff, he wisely held in reserve the unleashing of full orchestral tone and weight for the concluding brass chorale peroration with every strand of the work’s main themes integrated therein. All perfectly delineated and audible (especially the flutes) sounding as noble and powerful as the composer intended, but never merely loud or strident. Skrowaczewski used the Nowak edition which restores some minor cuts made by Schalk in the last two movements. And he made a few minor emendations of his own mostly  to do with adjusting dynamics and orchestral balance. All these slight cuts and emendations are also to be heard in the Saarbrucken recording.

My only quibble was  the non-antiphonal violin placing  that Skrowaczewski favoured,  but this sounds a little churlish given the general excellence experienced. A great Bruckner 5!

Geoff Diggines

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