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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 6 (1881) [57:14]
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/Jaap van Zweden
rec. Studio MCO 5, Hilversum, 11-14 June 2012

Jaap van Zweden, the recipient of Musical America's Conductor of the Year Award in 2012, is one of the most successful conductors of today. Currently the Music Director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (since 2008), he is also Honorary Chief Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Radio Chamber Philharmonic (having been Chief Conductor from 2005 until 2011).
This new disc from Challenge Classics is the latest instalment in van Zweden's Bruckner Symphony cycle, which he began recording for Exton.
The first complete performance of No. 6 took place three years after the composer's death, when Gustav Mahler conducted a heavily cut version in Vienna. The music made little headway in its early years, with the result that it does not suffer from the complications of different performing editions which dog so many of Bruckner's works. When he composed it, around 1879-1881, he had suffered many disappointments as a composer, but enjoyed few triumphs. Yet posterity has confirmed that the music he created remained masterly, even visionary.
The recorded catalogue boasts more good performances of the Symphony now than used to be the case a few years ago. The arrival of this excellent new version with van Zweden and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic makes that even more true. It assumes a worthy position alongside other fine performances, conducted for example by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (Oehms OC215), Daniel Barenboim (Warner Elatus 2564 60802) and Günter Wand (Profil PH06047).
The recording from Hilversum sounds splendid, nicely balanced with a secure and sensitive dynamic range. The climaxes make a wonderfully sonorous and powerful impression. These things are particularly important in this piece, since Bruckner shows so many deft orchestral touches, not least in the nocturnal scherzo, which is full of subtleties of rhythm and texture.
The basic rhythm of the opening movement can be difficult to articulate, but here it is clear in outline and beautifully judged in terms of pace and dynamic shading. The description in the score is Maestoso, and van Zweden achieves an appropriate sense of majesty as the first subject unfolds from fragments to full climax. The flowing gesängperiod (song period) moves naturally and fluently out of this, in the process extending the expressive range. The closing phase is expertly delivered too, with the dynamics accurately observed in order to make maximum effect, with the Netherlands brass players on top form.
This symphony has one of the great slow movements. The security of the string playing delivers abundant richness of tone thanks to the work of the recording engineers, and again the subtle dynamic shadings play a full part. For example, the third theme, a hushed funeral march, makes a telling impression, though might it have been more so with an even more daring pianissimo? Compare this with Wand, for example.
With its palpable changes of gear, the finale can pose problems for interpreters but van Zweden paces and shapes it brilliantly. When the main theme of the work (the first theme) returns in order to set the seal on the whole conception, the effect is compelling, since sonic satisfaction is combined with the deep inner logic of large-scale symphonic argument.  

Terry Barfoot 

Masterwork Index: Bruckner 6