Great conductors of Bruckner are like great wines: they mature slowly. There is something about those unique blocks of sound and wisps of melody that transmogrify in unexpected directions that require a steady hand on the tiller but also an awareness of the vastness of the horizon beyond. It helps too if the conductor in question has spent a lifetime reflecting on each twist and turn of these amazing symphonic scores and the meaning of those big-boned phrases with their intimations of immortality. Like Stanisław Skrowaczewski , for instance. Now officially the oldest person ever to conduct in the Royal Festival Hall, he recalled in a recent interview the transformative moment when as a mere seven-year-old in Lwόw he first heard a Bruckner symphony. “I was paralysed, struck dumb, I almost lost consciousness,” he stated. “It was music of a power and beauty I had never experienced.”

Stanislaw Skrowaczewski © Toshiyuki Urano
Stanislaw Skrowaczewski
© Toshiyuki Urano

There are few works that can fill an entire concert programme and leave the listener at its culmination with a sense of having undergone a spiritual experience. Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony is one such work. It strikes me as quite puzzling that this colossal piece, with its cosmic vision and arguably the finest purely orchestral finale ever written, is not performed as often as most others in the symphonic canon. It is one of only two (the Sixth is the other) not disfigured by cuts and revisions foisted on the composer by so-called, and ostensibly well-meaning, friends. It is also one of only two (the unfinished Ninth being its companion in this respect) which the composer never himself experienced in concert.

I have heard many performances that were more energetic, more enveloping and indeed more ecstatic than this one but few that were so shot-through with integrity and selfless musicianship. At 92, Skrowaczewski is a gaunt figure, his head bowed for most of the time; he stands throughout the 80-minute performance, needing only occasional support from his music-stand, on which the score remains unopened; his very short baton describes gently moving arcs in the air; nothing is harried or hustled along; his attention to dynamics is scrupulous. He is like a master-sculptor, working not with granite – for this is a different kind of performance – but with alabaster or marble, chiselling gently away at the surfaces, moulding and shaping, revealing the mottling of colour within the veins of the marble, polishing the translucence of the alabaster.

Following the opening plucked notes from cellos and basses in the tonic key of B flat major, five notes down and five notes up – the only work Bruckner wrote which begins with a slow introduction – there is a sudden tremor in the opening phrase in the upper strings, an early indication of the tonal uncertainty on which the entire first movement is built. And when Skrowaczewski has finished shaping these early moments with an unerring sense of balance and forward momentum, he gives us the first of the many Luftpausen (where in a more helpful acoustic than the Royal Festival Hall those fragments would linger in the air, in the same way that great wines linger on the palate) before pointing up the contrasts in the G major fanfare and chorales in D major and A major that set us on this searching journey of discovery. And when we reach the five huge chords of the home key at the end of the coda, the brass crown but do not drown all the individual wind and string voices.

Ian Hardwick’s plaintive oboe speaks to us very directly at the start of the Adagio, as the slow steady tread of the lower strings reminds us of how the voyage started. Utter desolation gives way to consolation at the entry of the full string choir in one of the richest chorales Bruckner ever wrote. Later in the movement Skrowaczewski turns our eyes heavenwards with the frequent rising scales on flute, horn and strings, repeated but fleeting moments of transcendence.

He moves immediately into the scherzo, which is lean in sound, jaunty in mood; he phrases the Ländler with unusual delicacy. In these pastoral-like scenes we are at some remove from the clodhopping peasants more usually associated with such a dance; instead, fleet-footed elves have come to transport us into a world of the imagination.

At the start of the finale he gets his clarinettist Robert Hill to give varied voice to the important solo: these subtle shifts in mood lead seamlessly into an astonishing fusion of sonata, fugue and chorale. By the time we arrive at the massive coda, with braying horns, the heavenly gates have been flung wide open. Here are those glimpses of eternity that Bruckner has woven into the warp and weft of his great finale. Not a Shiraz or even a Cabernet Sauvignon, but certainly a very fine Merlot.

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