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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

BARGAIN OF THE MONTH

Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 6 in A major (1879-81 [54’09"]
Symphony No. 7 in E major (1881-84) [60’36"]
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Bernard Haitink
Recorded in Amsterdam in November 1966 (Symphony No. 7) and December 1970 (Symphony No. 6)
PHILIPS DUO 473 301-2 [114’45"]


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Philips here continue their very welcome reissues of Bernard Haitink’s fine series of Bruckner recordings. I assume that both readings were set down in the Concertgebouw though that’s not expressly stated in the documentation. However, the spacious, natural sound for both recordings is entirely consistent with that building.

The Sixth is, for some reason, something of a Cinderella amongst Bruckner’s last six symphonies and is less frequently programmed than the other works of the composer’s full maturity (though things have improved in recent years.) Why this should be the case I do not understand for it is a fine, well-structured work, full of memorable ideas.

The first movement is difficult to pace. The syncopated violin figure with which the work opens, unique in Bruckner’s output, can be something of a trap. To my ears Haitink is just a little too fleet here. Mind you, he’s in good company for his tempo is identical to that chosen by Günter Wand. Klemperer is much slower (though his reading, which I have long admired, is now starting to sound just a bit too massive). Actually, Sir Colin Davis in his newly issued LSO Live recording seems to me to get the initial speed just right. Of course, many listeners may well prefer a slightly more urgent approach to this movement in which case Haitink, as he usually does, makes an entirely cogent case. In fact, taking the movement as a whole it seems to me that his control of structure and Brucknerian syntax is as masterful as I’ve come to expect from him over the years. He’s particularly good at negotiating transitions of speed and handling the build up to a climax.

The solemn and profound adagio is marvellously laid out by Haitink. Where Klemperer is gaunt in this movement Haitink is noble. I can accept either approach but, on balance, I prefer Haitink. He is assisted by some deeply responsive and understanding playing from his Dutch orchestra and together they build glowing and majestic climaxes. In their hands the coda is really deeply felt.

The rest of the performance is on the same high level. The rhythms in the scherzo are alert and sprightly. In the finale, another movement which is hard to pace, Haitink’s musical logic and his choice of tempi seem to me to be pretty irrefutable. In summary, this is a fine and well thought out performance of the symphony.

Philips have chosen to couple it with Haitink’s first recording of the Seventh (he re-recorded it with the same orchestra in 1979.)

This earlier version is quite a bit quicker overall than the later performance which took 65 minutes (by comparison, Karajan’s 1989 traversal with the VPO took 66’15" and Günter Wand and the BPO in 1999 took 66’37"). For the most part, however, I didn’t feel that in this 1966 reading Haitink was pressing forward unduly. In the first movement some listeners may perhaps feel that he could allow a little more space in the passage marked ‘Ruhig’ (track 1, 2’03") but, in fact, his speed is so close to the metronome mark in the score as to make no difference. I found his account of this movement very satisfying.

The burnished adagio unfolds with due solemnity, the Wagner tubas adding an extra richness to the scoring. The ascent to the main climax (track 2, from 13’44") is controlled by Haitink with massive assurance and the cymbals and triangle cap a glowing, ardent dénouement. The coda is all patrician sorrow.

The scherzo, which always conjures up for me a mental image of knights riding into battle, is very exciting and the scherzo is generously phrased. The finale is judged very well indeed and is distinguished by some majestic brass playing, nowhere more so than in the final peroration (track 4, from 10’40"). Though the brass win plaudits here, the playing of the entire orchestra is first class throughout and does full justice to Bruckner’s most lyrical symphony.

These, then, are both highly distinguished performances benefiting from fine playing captured in excellent, spacious and natural sound. Bernard Haitink is one of the finest Brucknerians of our age and these two recordings are excellent examples of his sympathetic and wholly idiomatic approach to this music. The coupling is most attractive and as a final incentive to purchase there are good notes in French, German and English.

Strongly recommended.


John Quinn



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