Notable by their absence during the pandemic have been the big beasts of the orchestral world: the opulent tone poems of Richard Strauss, Le Sacre as well as most Bruckner and Mahler. Many of us have been dreaming for quite some time of hearing again the lush sounds of a standard 60-piece string section. Bruckner has not been entirely excluded from online events, but even so I approached Robert Trevino’s interpretation with the Malmö Symphony Orchestra of Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony (in the Benjamin Gunnar-Cohrs edition) with some trepidation. This is one of those works that can easily fill an entire evening and requires the kind of stamina necessary for mountain-climbing. The Finale with its massive double fugue is itself one of the greatest movements in all symphonic music.

Robert Trevino conducts the Malmö Symphony Orchestra
© Malmö Symphony Orchestra

The Malmö orchestra is almost a century old (founded in 1925); over the years a number of big names have been in charge (including Herbert Blomstedt, Vernon Handley, Paavo Järvi and Vassily Sinaisky). Trevino steps down as chief conductor at the end of the current season after a tenure of just three years. Listening to this performance I couldn’t help wondering whether he has had enough time to work on its sound. There wasn’t much evidence of tonal colour or muscular heft, though rhythms were clearly defined. The platform of the attractive-looking Malmö Live Konsertsalen with its warm ambience and light-toned wood panelling (home to this band since 2015) could easily have accommodated a larger string complement (only five double basses). Over wide stretches of this glorious work these players were simply drowned out by the very assertive brass: a lot of the important inner string detail failed to register.

Trevino has an elegant and not unduly fussy conducting technique, the left hand frequently working independently of the right, the cueing always precise. I was more impressed with softer interludes featuring instrumental solos (like those for flute and horn in the opening Allegro) rather than orchestral tutti characterised by the sharpness of the brass, which at Trevino’s very brisk tempo for the Scherzo came across as quite raw and angry.

Malmö Symphony Orchestra
© Malmö Symphony Orchestra

“Bruckner’s sense is that there is going to be a tomorrow,” was what Trevino said in a short address to the online audience before the concert began. This kind of optimism echoed by this particular conductor carried over into a performance which was full of primary colours but not much in between. Speed alone isn’t the overriding criterion (Trevino had it done and dusted in not even 70 minutes), but I heard little probing beneath the surface and above all not much awareness of majesty in the Finale. Trevino took one-minute pauses between the first and second movements and again between the last two, but curiously chose an attacca before the third.

There were a few moments of character. Rarely have I heard the opening of the Adagio sound more like a close relation of Sibelius (a Tapiola-like bleakness) or the Scherzo more redolent of a jolly Tyrolean dance in the local tavern. The very fruity and peremptory clarinet solo at the start of the Finale was like being told “What’s all this about then?”

A few jerky transitions aside, the video direction by Mattias Tufvesson was good. There was a clear emphasis on the ensemble as a whole, with individual sections depicted (first violins, cellos, the complete woodwind choir, all five horns as a group, even when only the principal was playing) rather than the excitable rush from one solo player to the next which passes for a sensitive realisation of the orchestral experience in some quarters.

This performance was reviewed from the MSO Live video stream