Bruckner Symphony no. 5 in B-flat, WAB 105

performed by the Hamburg Philharmonic under Simone Young, or below with a second favorite, the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony under Stanisław Skrowaczewski

(cover image by Cassie Boca)

Back to Bruckner.

He’s a link between Beethoven and the next composer we’ll be discussing, starting this coming weekend.

Bruckner’s symphonies took me some time to warm up to, and I think I said back in the article about the third (or somewhere), that Bruckner’s music was hard for me to begin to appreciate. Even a newcomer, a sort of outsider to classical music, I think, still may associate the names Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler with one another, and there are reasons for that, but it doesn’t go so far as to say “If you like A, you’ll like B.” There are some challenges that are very similar for the symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler.

For one, they’re huge. Unlike Beethoven’s works we talked about last week, or much other music, a single movement of one of these symphonies could be twenty or thirty minutes long, and is only a part of the larger-scale work. There are other similarities, seeing as Mahler revered both Bruckner and Wagner, but at a certain point, it stops. Mahler’s music is so intense, so in-your-face, so extremely extroverted relative to Bruckner’s approach to the symphony, inspired (or motivated?) by Beethoven’s ninth. In any case, as I age, I may find I prefer Bruckner’s work; at the very least, I’m coming to appreciate it much more.

Bruckner’s fifth symphony was completed around 1875-76 but not published until 1896. For some reference, 1875 saw the completions of Grieg’s Peer Gynt, Dvorak’s fifth symphony, Tchaikovsky’s third, the premiere of Bizet’s Carmen, and Wagner conducting portions of his final installment of the Ring cycle, Götterdämerung, which would be performed in full the following year. 1876 also saw Brahms’s first symphony and Dvorak’s piano concerto.

By the time Bruckner’s fifth was published in 1896, the same year the composer died, the music scene was different.  Standouts for that year include Amy Beach’s outstanding ‘Gaelic’ symphony (which granted stands firmly in the Romantic tradition), Dvorak’s Water Goblin and Noon WitchRachmaninoff’s first symphony, Mahler’s third symphony, Scriabin’s piano concerto, and Zemlinsky’s first string quartet. And the incomplete form of Bruckner’s own ninth symphony.

The work was dedicated to Karl von Stremayr, an Austrian statesman, and is sometimes referred to as the ‘tragic’ symphony or the ‘pizzicato’ symphony. The first performance was on two pianos at Vienna’s Bösendorfersaal on April 20, 1887. Bruckner missed the first orchestral performance of the “inauthentic Schalk” version because he was sick, and as a result never heard the work played by an orchestra in his lifetime. Wikipedia says of the Schalk version that he cut around 20 minutes of music, changed the orchestration, added triangle and cymbals to the coda of the finale, along with an offstage brass band. What was this guy thinking? The 1876 version of the work remains unpublished, and it is the 1878 version of the work that is most commonly performed.

I think I’ve said this about more than just one of Bruckner’s symphonies, but I feel like this one would be an excellent introduction (for some people) to his symphonies, but maybe only after being comfortable with big pieces. As we shall see, there are a number of things about this work that I think are very amenable to grabbing onto. It has an absolutely enormous structure, one that to me feels large, even for Bruckner, for a few reasons. I hope that in this article, I can point out a few of those areas, things that a listener can look out for that might make this huge 75-minute symphony seem approachable and digestible.

The first movement gives us the only slow opening of all of Bruckner’s symphonies; it’s marked adagio, and begins pizzicato, which is an important aspect of this symphony, as referenced by one of its nicknames. It’s especially important here because it plucks out the outline, builds the foundation for this entire massive work. It’s so common to hear people talk about ‘cathedrals of sound’ when discussing Bruckner’s music, but this one is more like a mountain, or an obelisk, something that would dwarf the Washington Monument, say, but is sort of that shape. Everything rests on what came before, and the climax, the peak of this work, comes extremely late.

So we have all of that to accomplish in this opening movement, and once you’re familiar with the piece, you can hear how early it’s happening in this work. It’s thrilling, as is the momentous, brassy finish of the opening movement.

And in stark contrast with that, the second movement (as do almost all of the movements of this symphony, spoiler alert) also begins with plucked strings, and we hear perhaps the first shadows of the scherzo, but the movement is not at all scherzo-like. An oboe solo begins the movement, and we have this interesting use of cross rhythms interlocking with or against each other, creating a sort of perceived instability. There are triplet figures (I think?) and this subtly rhythmic undercurrent will eventually get us to the scherzo, but not before traversing through some absolutely gorgeous string passages, big, broad, epic rich writing like you might expect of the Austrian organ-playing composer. Just stunning, and as with the entire symphony in Simone Young’s hands, it is played and presented exquisitely.

The second movement began and ended with pizzicato after a mighty climax, and the third is the only movement that doesn’t begin with plucked strings, but in the hushed bowing of the basses that quickly bring the scherzo to life, one could almost mistake them for such. It’s a powerful, momentous scherzo, (it’s Bruckner, after all) full of florid detail, ornate and intricate for how grand it sounds. It is still somewhat restless, unstable, more in the length of each phrase than in meter. This isn’t Stravinsky. The meter is still a driving, heavy triple meter, but it’s contrasted almost instantly with an almost Ländler-like pastoral theme, even though this gets quite boisterous. Listen for some relevant material in the trio that seems to come straight from the opening of the first movement.

We have arrived at the fourth movement, and it’s a very odd introduction, to me, but one of the most exciting I’ve listened to recently. We get our pizzicato introduction back, and then one of those dramatic mid-thought pauses, a clarinet solo, and then what? An absolute direct restatement of the opening of the first movement.

It feels now like the symphony is rebooting, like the curtain has closed, reopened, and now we’re starting over. Is it starting something new? Is it tying things together? What exactly is going on?

Well, it is only here, after close to an hour (or more, if you’re listening to Celibidache), that we see the final shape come into view; we realize that we’ve been on one single journey all along, like one monstrosity of a tone poem. This movement is more than just a recapitulation, though, or tying up of loose ends. It’s the longest of the four in the symphony, and as if capping off the previous three movements weren’t enough, Bruckner gives us yet more material. Of this material, Wiki says:

[it] becomes the source of the themes of the Allegro moderato, another sonata form which contains in its course fugal and chorale sections of elaborate counterpoint. The hybridization of sonata form and fugal elements is a hallmark of this movement.

The article continues to talk about theme groups and “a non-fugal second group which functions as an episode,” a third theme and a “chorale gesture” which closes it, a second fugue subject, and on and on, but… to summarize, Bruckner builds a magnificent structure that masterfully handles not only the content in this movement itself, but ultimately ends up weaving in the theme from the first movement into this double fugue, tying everything back to those few single opening gestures. It’s a genius accomplishment, and aside from labels and analysis, just a thrillingly exciting, powerful piece of music.

It may be one of his most captivating symphonies, as it pulls the listener along for the entire journey. We still have so many of Bruckner’s favorite elements of the symphony and structure, but there’s an overarching connectedness to this work overall that I feel might be much more easily appreciated. As a result, at least for me, this entire work, an hour and a quarter long, seems to fly by, intense and heartfelt.

I also want to give a shoutout to Simone Young, who might be displacing Skrowaczewski as one of my favorite Bruckner conductors. Well, she has at least here. The late Skrowaczewski’s cycle with Saarbrücken is really superb, and I may still prefer others’ recordings of 8 or 9 (as of yet), but Young’s recording here (live, mind you) of the fifth, her last installment of their cycle, is nothing short of astounding, an absolutely remarkable recording, regardless of other qualifiers like ‘Aussie’ or ‘female.’ I feel pretty confident that given this work to listen to blindly, without knowing who’s conducting or playing, even the staunchest of critics would at the very least not find much to criticize, if not find tons to praise. I’m eager to hear more of her Bruckner.

But that’s not all we’ll be seeing of old J.A.B. We have a revisit article this week that shouldn’t even really be a revisit at all, so do stay tuned for that. Go give this symphony a few more listens, and thanks so much for reading.

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