Benjamin Zander

Bruckner: Symphony No. 5

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In the 1990s, Benjamin Zander achieved a high degree of fame through a series of recordings he made of Gustav Mahler's symphonies for Telarc, which combined elegant performances with bonus discs featuring the conductor's enlightened commentary. This 2009 release of Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 5 in B flat major follows suit and delivers a remarkably clear and cogent reading of Bruckner's most skillfully wrought symphony, along with a moving account of how Zander came to conduct this work so late in his career. One has to respect Zander's intelligence in analyzing the symphony and sincerity of his views on the work's deeper meanings, but it may be a stretch for some listeners to buy the programmatic explication he gives for particular themes, sections, and the overall structure of the work. Included in the package is a diagram of the symphony's form, laid out like the floor plan of a cathedral, obviously tying into the work's unofficial nickname, "Church of Faith," an appellation Bruckner did not give the work. From this, it seems Zander extrapolates certain meanings behind the tonal scheme of the expanded sonata form, the inter-connectedness of thematic shapes, and the spiritual dimensions of Bruckner's work, all explained with lucidity and conviction. Yet another view of this work is that it, like all the rest of Bruckner's symphonic output, is pure music, and that the religious and spiritual ramifications people are so eager to find in it are not necessary for appreciation. Bruckner's faith was never explicitly spelled out in his abstract music, beyond a general dedication to God of all his efforts and a specific dedication of the Symphony No. 9; furthermore, the only program Bruckner ever allowed to be attached to a symphony was a vague story outline given to the Symphony No. 4, "Romantic," which was later withdrawn. So it might be going too far to view the symphonic argument of the Symphony No. 5 as the soul's struggle against adversity to achieve salvation, but perhaps a bit more prudent to see this work for what it is -- a tour de force of polyphony and one of the greatest (if problematic) symphonies ever written. As Zander's performance with the Philharmonia Orchestra demonstrates, this is powerful music that will touch the emotions, but it also contains so much brilliant writing, especially in the fugal Finale, that it will equally appeal to the intellect without speculative descriptions to lend it force. Zander's grasp of the music is secure throughout, and this rendition is certainly one of the most compelling available. Telarc's sound is deep and detailed, and the reproduction is as good as it gets on this CD version of the recording. Highly recommended.

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