Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony is a bit like Mahler’s Seventh: a problem child. It’s idiosyncratic, emotionally ambivalent, architectural rather than melodically forthcoming and equal to his Eighth in duration and grandeur. It features pizzicati and counterpoint in a way no other Bruckner Symphony does. Few conductors ever get it completely “right”. Simone Young, a noted Bruckner interpreter, and the Sydney Symphony came as close as any Brucknerite can reasonably expect in performances last week which saw excellent contributions from every section of the orchestra, something we now virtually take for granted, such is the SSO’s polish. The work was last preformed here in 1977 in a typically brisk and rather matter of fact rendition by Willem van Otterloo. This one was vastly superior. Young guided the orchestra through the minefield of the first movement with its slow introduction, (unique in Bruckner) which reappears at the beginning of the final movement, giving the work a cyclic structure. The tutti exclamations and self-conscious grandiloquence which follow the opening sound almost like a self-parody, but Young handled the launch into the Allegro and continued throughout with convincingly integrated tempos without jarring gear changes and carefully nuanced climaxes.
In the solemn and despondent Adagio the orchestra progressed through a dark landscape with distinguished oboe solos from Diana Doherty. The Scherzo, with its aborted waltz and slightly off-centre trio section, is an odd affair. It’s the finale, even more monolithic than that of the Eighth, which makes or breaks this work. Like the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth, it begins with a brief revisitation of earlier themes and then strangely perky Till Eulenspiegel-like interjections from the clarinet before juddering into a fugal juggernaut on lower strings. (For some reason, I can never resist the feeling Bruckner was being tongue in cheek.) Fortunately, Young didn’t rush her fences and kept this equally challenging ‘book-end’ under firm control. The climactic brass peroration was truly heaven storming and all credit to the brass for their splendidly refulgent tone after such a long evening.
Before the interval, Imogen Cooper gave a gracious account of the Beethoven Second Piano Concerto, (chronologically his First) which conveyed his instincts to stretch Classical tradition to the limit while honouring Viennese traditions of charm and refinement. For the first time, however, I experienced a portent of Beethoven’s last Piano Sonata in the cadenza of the first movement. The tempos were gorgeously courtly and the beatific expression on Imogen Cooper’s face in the closing bars alone was worth the price of a ticket.