Listening Guide: Bruckner's Symphony No. 5

By Andrew Stiefel

  • Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony is one of the wildest, most ambitious and crazily conceived pieces of the symphonic repertoire, says the BBC.
  • In contrast to his self-effacing personality, Bruckner's Fifth Symphony is vivid and expansive. Its as if everything he couldn't express comes pouring out in the music.

Whenever we talk about the music of Anton Bruckner, invariably the comparison to a “cathedral of sound” is made. That’s the cliché, at least. And yes, it’s true: Bruckner wrote symphonic works of monumental scale.

But focusing on the length of his music conceals the astonishing range of human emotion contained within. This is living, breathing music that is meant to express excitement, desire, despair and hope. It is not some frozen spiritual monument that we can safely contemplate from afar.

That this music should come from Bruckner is somewhat surprising: he was modest and self-effacing, unfashionably conservative, and ultimately, painfully awkward in social situations.

Yet in his Symphony No. 5, we encounter a splendid world of sound and emotion. The bold themes, heroic melodies and dramatic orchestration are not what we would expect from their self-critical creator. It’s as if all the ambitions, hopes and desires that Bruckner could never express come pouring out in his music.

The Fifth Symphony opens with a quiet chorale, the only slow introduction in Bruckner’s nine symphonies. The introduction piles up blocks of themes and sounds, sliding through multiple keys as it searches for its harmonic identity.

The second movement opens with a precariously perched oboe solo in one time signature while the accompaniment moves in a different time signature. If this is a cathedral, the building blocks are shaky indeed!

The whirling scherzo in the third movement borrows the theme and intervals of the second movement, providing important links between the movements.

The Finale is built on tightly composed fugues, the instruments chasing each other across the orchestra. The piece begins to collapse in on itself when the original chorale returns. Bruckner is saying “my end is my beginning” and time itself seems to be suspended as themes and fragments from the entire symphony are pulled together.

Recommended Recordings

There are many fine recordings of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5, but if you’re listening for the first time, here are some suggestions to explore.

Eugene Jochum Conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra

No discussion of Bruckner’s music is complete without at least referring to Jochum’s classic recordings with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Jochum’s interpretation is highly charged and spontaneous. Although other recordings better highlight the long-evolving structures in the Fifth Symphony, Jochum brings energy and joy to the music.

Herbert von Karajan Conducting the Berlin Philharmonic

If you want to start exploring different interpretations, Karajan’s recording makes an interesting contrast to Jochum. Under Karajan, Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony unfolds in stately, careful elegance. The emotions are there, but they are carefully controlled in favor of a long, sustained development.

Music Director Ludovic Morlot conducts Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5, April 20 & 22.

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Posted on April 10, 2017