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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 6 in A major, WAB 106 (ed. Haas) [56:57]
Staatskapelle Dresden/Christian Thielemann
rec. Semperoper, Dresden, 13/14 September 2015
Video direction: Nyika Janscó
Region Code: A, B, C
Picture format: 1080i 16:9
Sound: PCM Stereo; DTS-HD MA 5.0 Surround Sound
C MAJOR Blu-ray 738304 [62:43]

Since he became principal conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden in 2012, Christian Thielemann has opened each season with a Bruckner Symphony. I have already reviewed films of his performances of the Fifth, Seventh and Eighth symphonies, so I was pleased to receive this Blu-ray of the Sixth.

I have never quite understood why the Sixth seems to be less frequently played than the rest of the last six symphonies. It ought to fit well into concert programmes because it is not as long as, say, the Fifth or Eighth. The thematic material is by no means inferior, nor is the development of that material. It is also felicitously scored, including a good deal of fine writing for the woodwind. In addition—and this point is not to be sneezed at—the vexed question of which edition to use does not really arise. A performance of the quality of this present one reminds us that the Sixth is a very fine symphony.

The opening of the work presents an immediate problem for the conductor in pacing the violins’ quiet but insistent dotted rhythm which propels the music forward. Bruckner’s marking of Majestoso is not exactly helpful. Thielemann is quite brisk here, and appreciably faster than Klemperer in his 1964 recording (review). I still admire a great deal about Klemperer’s recording but over the years I have come to think that his measured, almost defiant way with this opening material—and all that flows from it later—is too stolid. Thielemann’s initial pace is pretty similar to that set by Bernard Haitink (review). I think that, like his Dutch colleague, Thielemann succeeds in injecting momentum and, indeed, some urgency into the music without being over hasty. I suspect that at least in part he has his eyes on the more reflective passages in the movement, being conscious that too slow an initial tempo runs the risk that those passages will then become stodgy. In fact, I think his tempo relations are very well judged. The reflective, lyrical sections are shaped with fine feeling and a clear sense of Brucknerian style. I found Thielemann’s account of this movement very convincing. The last few minutes, beginning with the main theme played by the oboe and horn in unison (14:37), build to a most imposing conclusion.

The Adagio carries the additional marking Sehr feierlich (very solemn). Thielemann shapes the music in long, dignified phrases and broadly-conceived paragraphs. His tempo changes are convincing. All in all, I think he conveys the architecture of the movement expertly. He is helped by glorious, burnished playing by the Staatskapelle Dresden. One has the impression that playing Bruckner’s music comes as naturally to them as breathing. Worthy of special mention is the way in which the conductor and his orchestra build the climaxes patiently and in a very natural way. I found a genuine nobility in this performance and was both impressed and satisfied.

The scherzo benefits from finely pointed playing. The music is full of life. The trio is nicely relaxed and hereabouts the contributions of the horns and woodwind are particularly praiseworthy. Thielemann knots together the various elements of the finale very skilfully. Again, I think his sense of pacing is pretty unerring. Much of the movement is very exciting though the lyrical passages come over just as effectively. At the very end, the brass play triumphantly, in the major key, the opening theme with which we commenced our journey nearly an hour ago. This is a big though not overblown finish and it sounds magisterial here. At most performances (not least at the Proms) there would be an immediate ovation but not on this occasion. Instead Thielemann holds the moment for several seconds, allowing the sound to decay naturally before the Dresden audience begins prolonged applause.

I found it very interesting to watch Thielemann in action. As in the other films of him that I have seen, he conducts from memory. His appearance is absolutely immaculate and remains so throughout the performance. He eschews any histrionic gestures; indeed, at times, especially in the first movement, his beat is almost imperceptible. You might almost describe him as “old school”. Notwithstanding his fairly restrained style he most certainly gets results. The playing of the Staatskapelle Dresden is glorious throughout. Every section distinguishes itself, not least the golden-toned brass and the double basses. The latter are placed to the conductor’s left, behind the first violins, from where they give the string choir and, indeed, the whole orchestra a solid foundation. Incidentally, Thielemann divides his violins left and right, which I am pleased about. At the end, when it comes to singling out individual players for a bow, the first member of the orchestra to be brought to his feet is the principal horn, and rightly so.

The film presentation is traditional: this is a straightforward film of a concert performance, blessedly free of any gimmickry. The pictures are sharp and always relevant to what we are hearing. The Blu-ray sound is excellent.

In every respect this is a very distinguished account of Bruckner’s Sixth.

John Quinn

 




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