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Anton BRUCKNER (1824–1896) Symphony No. 6 in A major, WAB 106 (1879-1881)
1881 Version. Ed. Robert Haas 
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Bernard Haitink
rec. live, 4 & 5 May 2017, Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich BR KLASSIK 900147 [55:15]
Compared with the ten or so recordings with which I am familiar, this live recording is decidedly on the swift side, especially in the Adagio, but is hardly unusual in that regard, in that favourite versions conducted by Horst Stein (54:41), Wolfgang Sawallisch (54:51) and Klemperer (54:54) are similarly paced. Only Hans Rögner (52:17) is markedly speedier but that is typical of his approach to all of Bruckner’s symphonies. Karajan (57:36), Schaller (57:30) and Eschenbach (59:59), for example, take a more leisurely view but without sacrificing tension. In many ways, Haitink’s conception is closest to that of Stein, although the latter achieves an even more rapt quality in the Adagio. Choice of edition is largely irrelevant given that the differences between Haas and Nowak are small, although more recent performances seem to part company from Haitink here by choosing Nowak. What matters is the standard of playing and the quality of the engineering; both are exemplary here.
I find this to be one of the most fascinating and successfully recorded of Bruckner’s symphonies despite its reputation as a “problem” symphony and its comparative neglect in concert halls, and one susceptible to a marked variation of tempi without any compromise on the part of the listener’s enjoyment; I would happily take virtually any of those named above to my desert island. However, I listened again, at least in part, to many of the versions on my shelves and found that overall – and perhaps surprisingly – it is Gerd Schaller’s magnificent recording on the Profil label that most satisfies my criteria for appreciating Bruckner’s Sixth on disc.
However, this must rank amongst the most successful of Haitink’s forays into Bruckner. He is known for humorously enquiring after a performance whether it was “too Dutch” – i.e. too “sensible” and “moderate” – but there is no danger of that here.
The “maestoso” opening of the first movement must be urgent and thrilling yet numinous, and in many ways Karajan is the most successful in generating those qualities. Haitink is close to Karajan and Sawallisch in his approach, but his tempi seeming faster than they are by dint of his clipping of the semiquaver triplet phrases and applying more staccato. This is an urgent, purposeful, even youthful reading; however, grandeur is maintained by dint of the sumptuousness of the orchestral playing, which maintains a noble majesty despite the propulsiveness of the phrasing. Sawallisch and Rögner are taut and nervy, Eschenbach more relaxed, Klemperer more deliberate, massive and granitic, while Ballot seems to combine elements of both, particularly as the opening is not by any means especially slow, despite the overall leisureliness of his pacing. Yet for me it is Schaller’s careful phrasing and dynamic shading which trumps all comers, even above Karajan and Haitink here.
At 15:19 Haitink’s Adagio is nearly four mins faster than Karajan (18:58) and Roberto Paternostro (19:16) and nearly five minutes faster than Eschenbach (20:08). It at first sounds a bit rushed and lacking repose but there is no doubting Haitink’s grip and control and the movement unfolds seamlessly. The concluding bars are poised and sweet. However, Karajan secures more “grunt” in the lower harmonies and is more overtly Romantic in his shaping of the long melodic line, employing a greater dynamic range and finding just that touch more of magic.
The Scherzo is wonderfully sharp and rhythmically energetic, without contravening Bruckner’s marking “Nicht Schnell”, and marked by superb balance and interplay amongst the different banks of instruments. The horns in particular distinguish themselves in the Trio section by some gloriously euphonic playing.
The opening of the finale begins with the nervy, muttering strings interrupted by outbursts from the horns, generating a terrific sense of tension and expectation. Haitink’s pacing continues to be swift – Ballot takes three minutes longer - which helps prevent any sense of incipient fragmentation and the movement builds inexorably to a splendid, blazing, typically Brucknerian climax.
Good as this is, for me it is Gerd Schaller who presents the most coherent and satisfying conception of this symphony, with all the right elements in perfect balance and in exemplary sound. On the
other hand, the intensity and purposefulness of Haitink’s direction throughout make this a recording to esteem highly.
[This review commissioned by, and reproduced by kind permission of, The Bruckner Journal]
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