Symphony No.5 in B flat
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Christian Hoskins
Reviewed: 12 November, 2008
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Bruckner has become a regular feature in the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s schedule since Jiří Bělohlávek assumed the role of Chief Conductor, this performance of the Fifth Symphony following on from a performance of the Ninth at the 2006 Proms and the Seventh during autumn 2007.
The Fifth Symphony is one of Bruckner’s greatest achievements, but its solemn grandeur, stark orchestral colouring and contrapuntal complexity make it arguably the most difficult symphony for a conductor to bring off successfully. Bělohlávek’s performance had many of the right ingredients. Tempos throughout were well chosen – generally spacious but never dragging – and there was careful attention to phrasing and sonority. The opening of the symphony brought refined playing from violins and violas, vibrant declamations from the brass and a sense of physical immediacy from tremolando strings.
Despite these qualities, however, there was something missing. The first movement’s climaxes had impact without being affecting, and quieter passages suffered from a want of tension and mystery. Similarly, the Adagio’s noble main theme was notable for its rich, muscular orchestral tone rather than its hymn-like fervour. The direct and forthright playing in this movement instead made the music sound surprisingly modern, anticipating the progressive harmonic language that Bruckner would later bring to the finale of the Ninth Symphony.
A certain relentlessness and aggressiveness of approach undermined the performance of scherzo, the brass often unpleasantly loud in the dry Barbican Hall acoustic. Here, as elsewhere in the symphony, the four horns, three trumpets and three trombones specified in the score were occasionally augmented by one more of each instrument, which was completely unnecessary.
The finale was far more successful, Bruckner’s fugal writing benefiting from the clarity of the playing and the use of antiphonal violins. An accurate and sustained blaze of brass playing made for a splendid coda.
In summary, this was an interesting interpretation of Bruckner 5, if not a fully coherent one. However, the orchestra deserves credit for giving Bělohlávek its all, an occasional slip of ensemble entirely forgivable in the context of such committed playing.