Since the war, something strange has happened to the performance practice of Bruckner’s symphonies. More and more, conductors have made the monumental, monolithic aspects of Bruckner’s symphonies the defining feature of the music. At their best, there’s a meditative, intoxicating quality to the mesmerically slow speeds of performances by such conductors as Herbert von Karajan and especially Sergiu Celibidache, but with less accomplished maestros, Bruckner is reduced to a weirdly one-dimensional architect of sound. Too often these days, his music is performed by conductors who unthinkingly take their cue from the slow speeds of the school of performance that sees Bruckner as a pseudo-spiritual-guru, as if the music were a static marble sculpture rather than a living, breathing organism.
…Recent recordings by Roger Norrington, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Jonathan Nott have revealed a different side to Bruckner, interpretations that make him a human being rather than a self-annihilating penitent.
But here’s the biggest Brucknerian irony of all. You can experience the most dynamic vision of Bruckner in recorded history in performances given by Wilhelm Furtwängler, including some during the second world war with the Nazi-sponsored Berlin Philharmonic. There’s a performance of the Fifth Symphony from 1942 that is still shockingly intense, vital and energetic. For anyone who thinks Bruckner only wrote slow, static, boa-constricting music, this is the performance to hear. There’s an intensity and wildness Furtwängler finds that flatly contradicts the monolithic vision Hitler and Goebbels had of the composer. It’s an energy and fearlessness today’s conductors need to recover in their approach to Bruckner to do justice to the musical and existential revelations at the heart of each of his symphonies.
Tom Service, The Guardian, Thursday 6 October 2011