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Bruckner symphonies at their best

With the Leipzig-based Gewandhausorchester’s own efforts firmly in mind, fresh recordings of Bruckner are always welcome, even when they are paired with Wagner.
Bruckner

Gewandhausorchester/Andris Nelsons

Bruckner - Symphonies Nos 1 & 5

(Deutsche Grammophon)

With the Leipzig-based Gewandhausorchester’s own efforts firmly in mind, fresh recordings of Bruckner are always welcome, even when they are paired with Wagner’s frankly over-done “Tristan und Isolde.” So that's a black mark straight out of the shrinkwrap for DG, for programming the Wagner at the very start of disc one — a surprise for anyone who doesn’t check the track listing first.

That said, of course, Wagner’s influence on Bruckner was profound, and it was at a performance of “Tristan and Isolde” that Bruckner first met Hans von Bülow, the conductor whose enthusiasm led the First Symphony to fruition. There is, therefore, a method to the madness and, in fairness, the two performances here, the Prelude and Liebestod, are suitably lively.

Still Bruckner is the star of the show, with conductor Nelsons certainly living up to his sleeve note description of the First and Fifth as the product of both “youthful exuberance” and “an existential plight.” There is, equally, a fragility and an arrogance to the two pieces, and the performance is built around both the persistence and the clash of the two states of mind.

The utter clutter of themes that Bruckner threw into the first symphony — even after revising it some 25 years later — often seem to confuse attempts to bring it to fruition. Nelsons guides the orchestra through them, giving equal prominence and credence to them all, while also giving a nod to Bruckner’s own later description of the original piece as a “saucy little minx.”

The fifth, too, bristles with Bruckner’s defiant approach, and it seems peculiar to be reminded by the liner notes that he was once warned that it might prove too demanding for contemporary audiences. Consuming the whole of the second disc here, it is as expansive as it is electric; and the disc as a whole is the ideal complement to the remainder of the Gewandhausorchester’s Bruckner catalog.

  

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