Anton Bruckner Symphony No. 5 in B flat major

Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Georg Tintner

NAXOS 8.5553452

Playing time: 76:46

Record Cover There was a time when Anton Bruckner's music was considered unfashionable. Luckily, times change. The Schwann Opus reference guide now lists over two-hundred different recordings of his nine symphonies. In fact, there are twenty-three different versions of the great Fifth Symphony alone! From Wilhelm Furtwängler to Günter Wand, legendary performances abound. Thus, any new recording, even one of the budget variety, should attempt to offer the listener something new. The responsibilities for any incumbent recording are weighty to say the least!

With this in mind, innovative record company Naxos has chosen veteran conductor Georg Tintner and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra to justify a new complete cycle of the Bruckner symphonies. Georg Tintner is known to me only through his exceptional work with the National Youth Orchestra of Canada. His biography suggests experience as a conductor of opera both in Europe and Australia. He has also been Music Director of Symphony Nova Scotia, Canada's maritime orchestra.

The new Naxos recording is a somewhat hit-and-miss affair. Interpretively, Tintner has some interesting things to say. He conveys effectively Bruckner's sense of mystery and awesome power, and allows the orchestra leeway to produce some thrilling sounds. Tintner shapes the angular theme that opens the symphony, with strong, propulsive energy. Happily, this rhythmic quality is sustained through most of the movement. Much of the great Adagio has a lovely elegiac quality, and the Scherzo is incisive, yet rustic in quality. And yet, though the musicians' efforts are well-intentioned, much of the performance does not convince. Consistency and purpose, in some ways, are missing, and the lack of conviction diminishes Bruckner. I felt unmoved.

Only in the last movement do I feel a synergy between conductor and orchestra finally taking place. The great fugal movement is given a fine reading. Inflections are weighty, with rhythm taut and always forward-moving. The opening reflections on the previous movements are beautifully done, with an autumnal quality prefacing the dramatic fugue to follow.

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra are a fine body, however, the symphony does sound a little under-rehearsed. This is a budget recording and session time may have been brief. In Britain, the rehearsal time is often part of the recording session! As such, there are quite a few inconsistencies in execution. At times intonation suffers and, with the exception of the solo oboe, the woodwind solos are undistinguished.

In comparison, the woodwinds of The Cleveland Orchestra (London 433318-2) are superb. Under Christoph von Dohnányi's loving direction, the players shape and caress their solos beautifully. Great patience is needed when performing Bruckner - an expansive quality is required and the solos need time to breathe. Many of the RSNO players sound unconvinced. However, it would be churlish not to mention some outstanding contributions - the oboe soloist, horns, trumpets and timpanist are quite magnificent throughout.

A serious note about the pivotal Adagio movement: the introduction, for my taste and in my experience, is taken far too quickly. The oboe soloist must hurry the gentle syncopation Bruckner provides, which, on reflection, sounds quite inelegant. We are not left to ponder why. Tintner's explanation for the unorthodox tempo is explained in his superbly-written notes. It is a tempo, however, with which I cannot agree. Compare Klemperer and his New Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI CDM 7 63612 2) for a lesson in sustained beauty. The score is marked "very slowly". Klemperer delivers exactly what is advertised, as do Christoph von Dohnányi (London 433318-2), Franz Welser-Möst (EMI CDC 55125) and Riccardo Chailly (London 433819-2). All are stellar advocates of this great work and can be recommended comfortably. Personally, I have great affection for Otto Klemperer's performance. It is played and recorded magnificently, and intrigues me like no other.

The Naxos sound, as recorded in Glasgow's Henry Wood Hall, is not ideal for Bruckner. The soundscape needs a large space, allowing the huge climaxes time to resonate. The acoustic sounds dry, resulting in a distinct lack of bloom around the orchestra. The astringent atmosphere may appeal to some. Inner details are heard easily and the brass ring out thrillingly. Sadly, the bass is woolly and undefined. The trombones, tuba and string basses are conspicuous by their absence. This is a journeyman recording, and, as such, audiophiles should consider their purchase elsewhere.

A mixed bag then. I wanted to recommend this performance. I truly admire the Naxos philosophy. They are instrumental in the not-so-quiet revolution occurring in the classical music recording business. They attempt to offer great music and great recordings at great value. Their practice has given the public some wonderful performances. Unhappily, the start of the Bruckner cycle cannot be included among them. Definitely, for Bruckner completists only.

Copyright©Anthony Kershaw, 1997