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Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 5 in B flat Major WAB 105 (Nowak Edition)
Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Claudio Abbado (conductor)
Recorded live at Concert Hall of KKL Luzern, Switzerland (August 19-20, 2011) – 80'33
Accentus Music ACC10243 – Picture format: 16:9 – Sound format: DTS HD Master Audio, PCM Stereo – Region Code: NTSC 0 (worldwide) – Blu-ray Disc and booklet with essays in English, German and French

At this point, praise for Claudio Abbado and his elite Lucerne Festival Orchestra may seem excessive. They've strung together release after release to near universal acclaim, providing the Blu-ray disc catalogue with several demonstration quality recordings. You may not be surprised to learn that this latest performance of Anton Bruckner's Fifth Symphony, from less than a year ago, continues that tradition.

If that indeed is not surprising, then the fact that Maestro Abbado's group is somehow getting even better may be so. Their cool, controlled tone and technical ability suits this piece very well indeed. It is undoubtedly the frail but formidable maestro's influence who, despite barely breaking a sweat, is obviously firmly in control. Right from the exposition of the symphony, Abbado is careful to avoid excess. He gives a powerful, yet understated cue for the brass who respond with an awesome sound that is more inspiring than frightening. It is a very round, organ-like sonority with virtually no trace of harshness. Pauses between motives are expansive and acoustically appropriate. If a symphony is a journey then Abbado makes an ideal guide. Tempi are brisk, bringing the listener inside each movement and to the conclusion in an arc that leaves the listener refreshed rather than weary. Towards the end of the first movement, the return of the opening Allegro theme picks up a cascading momentum that is not too rushed and firmly brought to a noble conclusion.

I do not mean to impart that this performance is without romantic expression or dramatic excess, but it is so sparingly used that when it occurs, it is stunning. The best illustration of this is the second movement Adagio which is performed with sincere longing in the lush strings. Yet it is the simplicity of expression that the Maestro employs that best convinces the listener of Bruckner's earnestness here. Even in such an astoundingly beautiful movement, Abbado avoids sentimentality. The woodwind introduction and interludes are just that with no overtly sarcastic or sinister motives. Throughout all the transitions, it is Abbado's even and calm demeanor that helps keeps the listener engaged. Excess is excess, not necessarily beauty. At only seventeen and a half minutes, this Adagio flies by, so to speak, but never feels rushed.

The ensuing Scherzo is tight and brisk with the Trio weighty and broad, yet buoyant. There is a joviality that is not completely carefree and naive, but still uninhibited. The principal woodwinds really shine here, particularly flutist Jacques Zoon. The return to the opening material, Im gleichen Tempo, is slightly faster, but with good reason as the building undercurrent feels on the verge of being released, however Abbado takes his time and manages the interludes with a knowing humor. The close of the movement is almost understated, but still thrillingly coordinated.

The Finale begins with a breathtaking pizzicato, but it is clear from the contrasting motives from the first movement material that quite a ride is about to begin. The contrasts with the solo clarinet and double basses are some of the orchestra's most dynamic of the performance. The outstanding brass, led by principal trumpet Reinhold Friedrich, are superb and worth the price of admission. Abbado pushes the orchestra to its dynamic limits and their virtuosity and stamina is impressive. Their elegance of tone never ceases to dazzle. The conclusion is powerfully sating and overwhelming in its sheer majesty.

The beautiful 1080p High-Definition picture is consistently warm, and may have too much saturation for some, but it is beautifully done. The burnished wood instruments are gorgeous and the faces of the musicians and conductor glow with intensity. The DTS HD Master Audio Sound in 5.1 channels is thunderous with a wide dynamic range. Lows are crisp and powerful and the gloss of the high strings and woodwinds are soft and pleasing. It is a soundstage that is somewhat narrow but believable. In the end, this is a fine, even revelatory performance. It is an eighty minute journey that is consistently rewarding for the listener. As both orchestra and conductor age together, there appears to be no sign of complacency. If history is any guide, their finest performances may be yet to come and, at the moment, that is difficult to imagine.

Matthew Richard Martinez




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