Chaos reigned in London on the evening that Andris Nelsons was at the Royal Festival Hall to conduct the Philharmonia in Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5 in B flat major. In the middle of rush hour, an unexploded World War II bomb was being dealt with, shutting down tube stations, bridges and roads. Happily, the start of the concert was delayed, but the bomb discovery offered an amusingly apt backdrop to the performance. Like the Thames bomb, the Fifth lay submerged and inert for years; composed in 1875-1876, it didn’t make its first outing until 1894 under the baton of Franz Schalk in his mutilated edition that had substantial re-orchestrations and a gutted (almost blasphemously so) Finale. It is generally believed that the composer did not approve Schalk’s musical graffiti - done in the name of ‘accessibility’ – but it became the standard working edition until Haas and Nowak produced their own versions in 1935 and 1952. The Fifth now stands as a symbol of Bruckner’s originality; the fugal writing in the fourth movement is arguably some of the most complex composition of its time.

Andris Nelsons
Andris Nelsons

Nelsons is one of the top conductors in music of this period (crossing the river from the Royal Opera House where he is currently conducting Der Rosenkavalier) and wrought a majestic sound from the Philharmonia. Pizzicati, a strong feature in the Fifth, were elegant, particularly thoughtful as the symphony opened. Silvery playing from the strings blended unusually well with the rest of the orchestra; it’s always a pleasant surprise when a conductor is able to bring out the best of the brass in Bruckner without completely overwhelming everything else, and Nelsons did this exceptionally well. Woodwind playing was taut and energetic; the clarity of their responses in dialogue with strings was particularly appreciable. Nelsons closed the first movement with a burgeoning intensity that saw the strings sweeping against brass that seemed cheerfully triumphal – a well-developed conclusion. 

The interpretation was at its best in the second movement, where Nelsons seemed to capture the pulse of the music, giving an eery sense of the passage of time and combining this with a sense of tension that expanded into a rapturous second theme. Minor quirks in tempi showed an attention to detail and an inventiveness that could only be from someone supremely confident in Bruckner. The Scherzo though seemed to lack the impetus that makes the transition into the Trio appear so well-crafted; it’s the moment for musical gamboling, not a brooding plod. The sound seemed to lose some of the rich sonority that Nelsons had produced in the first two moments, offering something drier in its place.

Nelsons regained inspiration for the fourth movement, playing around again more successfully with tempi. Standout clarinet playing and tempered brass provided intelligent colour, and in the coda, Nelsons sustained and renewed a ferociously intense summation of the work, still drawing clarity from the strings through splendidly thunderous brass and the energetic timpani. It’s not an interpretation that is yet complete; the dragging of the Scherzo interfered with Bruckner’s careful construction of the temporal choreography that gives the coda that ultimate punch, but there was enough thought in the execution to elevate it beyond the ordinary.