My initial and continuing assessment of this twenty-five-year-old recording is that Günter Wand’s Bruckner Fifth for RCA Victor Red Seal belongs to the upper echelons of Bruckner Fifths.
The first measures stretch with emotion, almost like a dirge or church hymn. Particularly appealing are the string tremolos that anticipate the main theme and are fraught with emotion. And it’s this emotion that unlocks the measure of the riddle of this symphony, for the greatest moments in Bruckner’s music are private and internal — the mindscape of a deeply spiritual man medieval by nature and out of step with his times.
Wand has a wicked way of playing under the notes, using loose tempos and accented rhythms to create the right effect while maintaining an impressive clarity throughout, especially in the instrumental details, which never bog the conductor down and which propel the music forward.
The adagio is unutterably beautiful. Listening to it, I can’t help but think I am being invited to participate in one of the most moving spiritual journeys in Western music outside that of Arvo Pärt. From the start, the oboe flows with an assured beauty. Something in the meter compels and beckons. The spacious second theme builds to a natural and satisfying climax, the brass never overpowering and thus allowing the string figures to be heard.
The pace of the scherzo is quick and fully realizes Bruckner’s shifting and bewitching rhythms. Wand’s attention to detail brings the truth and beauty of this music into focus.
The finale is a great challenge for any conductor. Most recordings of this work strain to keep the contrapuntal threads clear, often with the result of rigid tempos and an overall bland sound. The brass can often sound out of tune, something Wand is careful to avoid. A result of Wand’s alchemy is that this movement smiles on the audience, with bounce and more than a little swagger. A pitfall for the unwary conductor is difficult to evade: this movement can be grim. But Wand finds the emotional range hiding beneath the notes, uncovering shades and contrasts where many conductors are only concerned with keeping the lines from becoming a tangled mess. Wand’s rendition of the finale is not surprising, for he is at his best in the outer movements, demonstrating a masterly grasp of this symphony’s immense architecture. He never relaxes the intensity, and thus the structure doesn’t fall apart as is often the case in a bad Bruckner performance.
This stellar recording is rich and finely detailed with a huge dynamic range. The NDR-Sinfonieorchester shines with brilliance. Used copies of this disc are available from Amazon for about $6. This CD is now my favorite Bruckner Fifth, surpassing Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic on DG. Karajan’s recording is all about gravitas. Wand’s is about thoughtful articulation and, in my opinion, is the right approach. My highest recommendation.