I've spent the last three hours of my life listening to two performances of Bruckner's 5th symphony. One by the most legendary orchestra/conductor combination of our time, one by a Scottish Radio Orchestra.
I've come to two conclusions:
1. The Scottish Radio Orchestra won handily.
Claudio Abbado's Lucerne Performance sounded like a great orchestra playing without a conductor. Claudio Abbado came to Bruckner too late and his conception of Bruckner wreaks of wishy-washiness. Half-measures (no pun intended) work in Brahms, whose music is bathed in subtlety and moderation. But Bruckner's is the music of a fanatic. There is no way to civilize Bruckner and a conductor must as much strength and extremity in his convictions as Bruckner did. You either have to go with extreme tempo and dynamic fluctuations a la Furtwangler/Jochum/Barenboim or you have to have absolute consistency a la Klemperer/Bohm/Haitink. There is no in between. So Claudio Baby, can we please just have another Brahms cycle instead?
The power of Ilan Volkov's conception dwarfed Abbado's. As a Brucknerian, Volkov is squarely in the latter, 'rigorist', camp. His performance reminded me of Karl Bohm's antique recording with the Staatskapelle Dresden (late 30's?). If I prefer the 'interventionist' approach in Bruckner, it's because Bruckner's repetition can be interminable and a Furtwangler or a Jochum gets the freedom to shape the music whatever way he needs to in order to minimize the redundancies. Even if Volkov's performance had the inevitable dry spots, it was a wonderful performance of a valid conception. Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony's PROMS performance demonstrated Bruckner's compositional rigor in every bar. Few conductors have better pointed Bruckner's kinship with Beethoven. An enormously commendable achievement from a conductor who's already somewhat fallen off the map and never ceases to surprise me (in good and bad ways).
2. I can't listen to Bruckner for the next three months.