Fortuna was not with me today, I desperately meant to get to Cleveland to hear the great Herbert Blomstedt do Bruckner's Fifth Symphony - one of my favorite pieces of music in the world and my pick for the greatest symphony written between Beethoven 9 and Mahler 1 (with all due apologies to Brahms and Tchaikovsky....). I'm a little too young to have much experience of the recently passed generation. I've heard Blomstedt (Brahms 2 - Gewandhaus), Harnoncourt (Schubert 4 and Dvorak 9, Vienna P), Davis (Ariadne auk Naxos - ROH), Haitink (Brahms 3&4, LSO), Dohnanyi (Brahms 1, Philharmonia), and Mackerras (Glagolitic Mass, Philharmonia - to this day the greatest performance I've ever heard) once each. I never heard Abbado, never heard Gielen or Sawallisch or Skrowaczewski or Masur or Pretre, I had to miss Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos conduct Mahler 3 in Cincinnati when I was there for a wedding, and Boulez cancelled the concert of his own music that I was supposed to hear him conduct in London. There are, of course, a number of others from that generation I had little desire to hear, but the thought that Blomstedt is still around in his 90s, giving the best concerts of his career, and I might miss the last of that generation's legends, is more than my messhugas can bear.
I firmly believe Bruckner 5 is his greatest symphony, and one of the greatest symphonies ever written. Unfortunately, Bruckner is one of those composers whom it's incredibly easy to get wrong. Play him too slow you bore the audience to death, play him too fast and it sounds generic, play him with too much brass sound and you give them a headache, play him with too little and the sense of awe is gone. It is a conductorial death trap and so many of the greatest names in conducting fail to achieve liftoff: Karajan, Wand, Celibidache, Harnoncourt, Sawallisch, Jochum, Schuricht, Thielemann, Sinopoli, Skrowaczewski, Venzago, Masur, Matacic, even Klemperer (perhaps especially Klemperer...). It's practically a Brucknerian honor roll of failure. The conductors I've heard who achieve liftoff can usually only do it in one recording: Furtwangler in wartime Berlin, the elderly Barenboim in recent Berlin, Bohm in wartime Dresden, Dohnanyi in Cleveland, Abbado in Vienna, Phillipe Herreweghe (of all people), the young Franz Welser-Most in London, the very young Bernard Haitink in Amsterdam, the very elderly Blomstedt in Hamburg, Michael Gielen in Stuttgart, Eduard Van Beinum in Amsterdam, Jascha Horenstein with the BBC in London, Jaap van Zweden on Dutch Radio, and the seldom-heard Volkmar Andreae with Vienna's second orchestra, the Vienna Symphony.
Who the f*** is Volkmar Andreae? The little known Swiss composer and conductor who lead the Zurich Tonhalle orchestra for nearly fifty years, and at the end of his career recorded the first ever complete cycle of Bruckner symphonies. This is not Bruckner-the-monolith people heard from so many geriatric Germans for the last fifty years that lasts 90 minutes. This is personalized, swift, romantic, and played with extreme sloppiness. It is Bruckner played, perhaps as he always should be, as Alpine folk music. As always with Bruckner, it is sometimes devotional, but if this Bruckner achieves liftoff to heaven, it's because he so often dances nimbly upon the earth.
This is Bruckner played in the romantic tradition. Perhaps you might hear something resembling this style from Furtwangler or Jochum or Bruno Walter, but by the era Karajan and Celibidache, orchestral playing was so homogenized that this style of earth and individual expression within the collective was barely ever possible again. This is Bruckner in the style he probably envisioned his music played, with the country dance band firmly in the ears of performers and listeners. Once you hear it, it's unforgettable, and later Bruckner performances will sound as though something's missing.