The reviewer may not have been as planned, but Stanisław Skrowaczewski – recently turned 92 – did make it along to conduct Bruckner 5 with the London Philharmonic. If his walking is now a trifle laboured, Skrowaczewski still manages unaided. Nor does he require a chair on the podium; and he conducted this vast and complex Symphony from memory (his score stayed shut).
Throughout this impressive account there was a strong and palpable connection between maestro and musicians. From the opening Adagio, pizzicatos with definite tread, strings issuing spiritual glow and all-summoning brass proclamations suggested a special performance that did indeed materialise, the ensuing Allegro given vitality and flexibility while avoiding indulgence but allowing full value to each episode and also that symphonic direction was bring honoured. Detailing and dynamics (brass always well-balanced, allowing violins to be heard gleaming) were typically given full attention.
The slow movement (with Ian Hardwick's eloquent oboe solo) was specified with nobility and generosity, sacred mysteries unearthed. Subtlety of expression was the hallmark here, with some notably lissom woodwind contributions. The build to the painful climax was carefully calibrated, and no doubt deliberately slightly reined-in so as to not undermine the blaze of sound with which the Symphony ends. If this Adagio closes in an isolated state, then Skrowaczewski played a trump card, an immediately convincing attacca into the Scherzo that itself had absolute rightness on its side, the varied dances made irrepressible, lilting and trenchant, and seeming even more vigorous on their return following a lively and deft Trio.
The huge Finale (26 minutes here) opens with reminiscences of the first two movements, dismissed impertinently by a clarinet. The movement was once again seen whole by Skrowaczewski, jaunty yet lofty, fugues high-minded but journeying, with the brass chorale dignified and eliciting solemn string responses. At once patient yet positive, Skrowaczewski sustained a potential loose assemblage with surety and gravitas. Come the glorious close he highlighted the flutes’ line (usually obscured), up an octave: this moment to savour finds, in my experience, only Abbado doing similarly, and it makes a real difference.
Surprisingly, the programme failed to notify the edition being used. Franz Schalk’s reduced and re-orchestrated version has long been an outsider (but it is preserved in a few recordings, not least the one by Knappertsbusch), leaving either Robert Haas or Leopold Nowak, which are not too different. Skrowaczewski used Nowak but opened up his cut in the Finale (indicated by him as ossia if integral to Haas) and he made some emendations of his own.
I recall Skrowaczewski conducting Bruckner 5 during his Hallé tenure (1984-91), preceding it in a broadcast concert with Roberto Gerhard’s Violin Concerto (with Yfrah Neaman as the soloist). On this occasion the Bruckner stood alone, a welcome opportunity for orchestra and audience to focus on one mighty work, here distinguished by Skrowaczewski’s authority and humility, his lust for life and music, and the London Philharmonic’s dedicated response: a humbling yet inspiring experience was fashioned.
On its own label, the LPO has already issued the Polish conductor-composer leading Bruckner 3 and 7. When this 80-minute Fifth is released, it will be the best of these (so far?). How about Bruckner 8 (which he recently conducted at St Florian) when Skrowaczewski is next in London?