bruckner philips jochum

Déjà Review: this review was first published in June 2001 and the recording is still available. Tony Duggan passed away in 2012.

Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major
Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam/Eugen Jochum
rec. live, 30 & 31 May 1964, Ottobueren Abbey, Germany
Presto CD
Philips 464 693-2 [76]

The Abbey of Ottobueren in Germany celebrated its 1200th anniversary in 1964 and to mark the occasion Eugen Jochum and the Concertgebouw Orchestra performed Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony there with Philips on hand to record them. The LP set arrived in the shops after Jochum had completed his groundbreaking Bruckner cycle in the studio for DG so a new release of him conducting just the Fifth seemed rather surplus to requirements and probably counted against sales. As well as this, in addition to the two discs containing the symphony, the box carried a third disc of a recital on the abbey’s organ. This might have further ruled the set out for reasons of expense. It was certainly not available for very long. But many who heard the Bruckner remembered something significantly different from Jochum’s fine Bavarian Radio Orchestra version on DG. In spite of balance problems on the LPs there was clearly greater splendour of playing by one of the great Bruckner orchestras in something of a golden age and the thrill of “live” performance in a near-ideal acoustic. Albeit not one ideally rendered by the engineers, I have to say. Jochum would go on to re-record all the numbered Bruckner symphonies for EMI in Dresden years later, but this lone concert recording of the Fifth was always at the back of many people’s minds. History therefore appears to have had the last word as it looks as though this will now go down in the catalogue as first choice version for Jochum in this work in spite of another “live” recording with the Concertgebouw made for broadcast in 1986.

Over the years Jochum’s fundamental view of this symphony didn’t really change so I think the collector can be confident that overall here is Jochum’s Bruckner Fifth in its best official recording. No organ recital this time round, of course, just the symphony in splendid isolation and remastered sound that is superior to the way we heard it first on LP. Now the brass section is more naturally contained and placed into the sound picture where before they rather blew everything else away at the climaxes. And whilst still benefiting from being in a church acoustic, surely the ideal setting for this of all Bruckner’s works, the impression this time is that the space around the instruments is used much more discreetly. There is still effective reverberation but it never gets in the way. Maybe the woodwind sound artificially boosted, but these are such great players I don’t think complaints are all that appropriate.

For all that Jochum has the reputation of being a conductor who moulded and shaped too much in Bruckner, in this work his guiding hand is quite benign. The first movement has the right rock-solid momentum and what tempo adjustments Jochum makes never seem to jar as they can in other Bruckner symphonies under his baton. Indeed I think we can safely assume we are in touch with a performance tradition stretching back to the composer’s own time. For example, the way he broadens slightly at the top of the first allegro following the great fanfares has all the aplomb of a great actor in a slightly old-fashioned production of Shakespeare. Then in the second movement I admired the delivery of the crucial opening oboe solo. Too often the conductor’s attention is lavished more on the big string theme that comes a little later. But I know I’m not alone in believing the oboe carries as important a message here, maybe conveying Bruckner’s lonely state of mind at the time of composition. So this is a real example of a conductor’s decision to take his time over a passage paying great dividends. I also think it typical of Jochum that he should cover every base like this especially since the arrival of the big string theme itself brings such simple dignity and such dark timbre from the Concertgebouw players. It’s a test of Jochum’s gifts in Bruckner that he can maintain our interest so well throughout this movement. Maybe the recording shows its age from time to time but there is no denying the quality of the playing or the finesse of the hand directing it.

In the third movement Jochum is more aware than many of the need and the rewards of contrasting the scherzo and the trio. In the former there is relentless energy and weight, in the latter lots of earthy character and upper-Austrian colour. But it’s in the finale that any performance of this symphony is going to be made or broken. This is Bruckner’s greatest last movement with its big fugue and grand chorale and the latter benefits greatly from that church acoustic, as you would expect. Some might find Jochum’s speeding-up prior to the chorale’s arrival a little excessive. I think it prepares the ground admirably so that you find you are more than ready when it confronts you. From here on, Jochum’s mastery of his material carries all before him with a near-perfect blend of intelligence and excitement. Listen especially to the magnificent brass in the closing pages. Only the greatest of orchestras can produce playing like this at the end of an evening.

A classic recording rightly restored to the catalogue in good sound and an example of Jochum’s Bruckner at its best.

Tony Duggan

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