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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 6 (1881)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim
Rec May 1994, Philharmonie, Berlin
WARNER ELATUS 2564 608022-2 [54.47]

Daniel Barenboim has excellent credentials as a Bruckner conductor, and if further evidence were needed this fine performance from his second recorded cycle, with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, provides it.

The Sixth is often seen as a problematic symphony, and it is true that it has proven elusive to its interpreters, both in the concert hall and on the sound-stage. Yet the composer’s mastery is beyond doubt.

One of the finest among previous recorded performances was Barenboim’s earlier version with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (DG), which if anything is at least a match for the new version. Each is thoroughly worthy of the listener’s attention, and does justice to Bruckner’s vision. The slightly more flexible approach to phasing found in the Chicago performance makes it one of the best Bruckner Sixths ever recorded, and while the present version does not quite come off to the same extent, it remains very fine and will give immense pleasure.

For a start, Barenboim’s judgement in matters of tempo is eminently reliable. Nowhere in Bruckner is this more important than in setting the pulse at the beginning of No. 6. Barenboim does so with assurance, and he builds the climax strongly too. The ensuing gesangperiod might perhaps have achieved more flexibility of phrasing, but the Berlin strings do sound well and make a full effect. The climax of the development is appropriately thrilling, but the passage with the quiet rocking horns echoing fragments of the principal motif is rather heavy.

Bruckner 6 boasts one of the great slow movements, and the Berlin string playing does it particular justice. For me the highlight is the third subject, a restrained and dignified funeral march that sets the tone for one of the composer’s most exalted developments. To make the mark in this music, the quieter the dynamic the better, and while Barenboim is eloquent enough, the orchestra is just a little loud in the quieter passages.

The mercurial scherzo is nicely pointed by Barenboim, aided by a recording which allows for details to be heard in the context of a full symphonic sound.

The finale is in many respects the most challenging movement. There are some awkward changes of gear, which although skillfully written out do elude some interpreters. Barenboim is not among them, of course, but his might have gathered in the contrasting elements more closely with the aim of securing a single vision. As it is, the sheer momentum of the principal material, with its climax in favourite ‘Bruckner rhythm’, carries the day.

Terry Barfoot

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