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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 6 in A major (WAB 106) (1881)
Philharmoniker Hamburg/Simone Young
rec. live, 14-16 December 2013, Laeiszhalle, Hamburg
OEHMS CLASSICS SACD OC687 [54:37]

 

Simone Young’s Hamburg Philharmonic Bruckner cycle has several claims on our attention. First it looks to be comprehensive, in the sense of including both the important “Number 0” of 1869 (which was actually written after No.1 and before No. 2), and the “Study Symphony” (or “Number 00”) of 1863, both of which have appeared already in very creditable performances. Second, she has performed the symphonies in the original versions, which is a notable trend in recent recordings whereby a first version is increasingly seen as a viable work in its own right, not just a try-out for a later version which Bruckner, and sometimes others, have ‘improved’. This is partly due to the revisionist role of much recent Bruckner scholarship, not least in regard to the assessment of the work of earlier editors.

So it is an important series, even beyond the generally very good quality of playing and conducting, especially given they are from live performances. All have received an appreciative welcome here and elsewhere. Young after all is a proven master of large structures, with several Wagner Ring cycle performances to her credit, including in Vienna and Berlin. Perhaps few of her individual Bruckner discs will disturb loyalties to the very best classic recordings, but as a cycle this has to be one of the most consistent of recent years.

This 6th is the most recent installment to appear, and numbers 5 and 9 are due during 2015, which will complete her cycle - unless there are plans to do the later versions of the most revised symphonies as well. That would be a first truly comprehensive survey, though if they were all to be recorded in concert it might further test the love for Bruckner of the Hamburg audience. Bruckner 6 has no problems of versions, as there is no revised later score to confuse matters. Its one-time Cinderella status among mature Bruckner symphonies – it was less often given than those coming just before and after - is a mystery to everyone who knows it, for it is one of his most immediately attractive and compact works.

Young’s disc has already received a highly positive review on MusicWeb International from John Quinn. There the classic Klemperer and the more recent Haitink from Dresden were the formidable comparators, to whom Young and the Hamburg Philharmonic yielded little by way of idiomatic mastery and playing and recording. I agree entirely with this judgment, and it might help collectors if I place this fine issue alongside other recent Bruckner 6th SACD competitors, of which there are five known to me, three of which were issued in 2009; Marcus Bosch/Aachen on Coviello, Marek Janowski/Suisse Romande on Pentatone, and Herbert Blomstedt /Leipzig Gewandhaus on MDR – all part of now completed cycles. Bosch, like Young, includes first versions (except in No.8) and recordings of Nos. 0 and 00, Janowski and Blomstedt offer familiar revised versions of 1-9 only. The fourth issue, from Jaap van Zweden/Netherlands Radio on Exton and Challenge Classics (2012), is part of a nearly complete cycle of revised versions, lacking only numbers 0 and 1. The fifth SACD of the 6th has just arrived from Mariss Jansons in Amsterdam, (coupled with the 7th.) All except the Janowski and Zweden are taken from live performances. Each of these discs of No.6 has strong merits, which is transforms the situation of a few years ago with regard to the piece Bruckner regarded as one of his boldest and best.

In this company, Simone Young’s steers a middle course, both in terms of timing and interpretation. On timings, Young’s 54:37 compares with Bosch, the quickest at 52:13, followed by Jansons at 53:11, while at the other end Zweden needs 57: 14, and Janowski and Blomstedt stand in close agreement at 58:35 and 58:39 respectively. Bosch achieves his record speed despite having by far the slowest scherzo, so should be seen as a fascinating revisionist view in which his first movement almost reimagines Bruckner’s ‘Majestoso’ marking as somehow implying a true allegro, dispatched in 13:33. Janowski takes nearly 18 minutes; Young just over 15.

Perhaps the relative neglect of the work mentioned above means we don’t quite have a performing tradition yet for this symphony, and the long term dominance of the Klemperer in the catalogue means his 54:52 has become a norm around which others vary, Young being closest to it. Other pre-SACD versions widen the range of timings quite a bit, with Volkmar Andreae’s Vienna Symphony account from 1953 flying by in just 50:49 and Celibidache – who else? – smashing the one hour barrier with 62:28 in 1991.

Just as Young’s timing places her in the centre of a spectrum then so does her interpretation. Swifter accounts see the 6th as quasi-classical like symphonies No. 0-3 (but much more fully achieved), while those with much broader tempi link the work to the bigger scale and apocalyptic manner of the works to follow. Young’s first movement has a classical feel to it, as she relates the tempi of the main thematic groups in the exposition very effectively to each other, never indulging the passing moment. The great touchstone though for me is always the tremendous coda of the movement, which Tovey so memorably referred to as “passing from key to key beneath a tumultuous surface sparkling like the Homeric seas.” The Hamburg orchestra is excellent here, especially the brass, but the conductor must keep the balance between the main theme, those sparkling surroundings, and the regular pulse driving the music on. Young does this as well as anyone, and the movement ends in a suitable burst of splendour.

The adagio has plenty of romantic feeling, and in the beautiful second theme (bar 25) the strings are at least as exquisite as in those Leipzig and Amsterdam versions mentioned above. Fortunately the conductor ignores the advice of Robert Simpson in his great book on the Bruckner symphonies that the movement “is often played too fast (and) will reward the slowest playing that artistry technique and courage can afford.” Her tempo is certainly an adagio but still has a sense of flow within and between sections.

The Scherzo – so different from any other in Bruckner – is played with plenty of rhythmic panache, and the Trio is as strangely spectral as it should be. The movement tempo markings are nicht schnell (not fast) for the scherzo and langsam (slow) for the trio - and Young’s timing for the movement is exactly that of Haitink in Dresden (8:36), a recording which JQ particularly endorsed. On SACD Jansons is swifter than her, at 8:04, and Jaap van Zweden faster than anyone ever I imagine, but still very convincing, at 7:44 - even Andreae’s 50 minute 6th needed 8:28 for this movement.

The finale has always been seen as the most problematic movement (and not only in the 6th), its various marked tempo changes making it difficult to achieve natural-sounding transitions. No conductor can quite get the composer off the hook here by providing a finale that really does seem a fully satisfying culmination, but Simone Young comes as close as anyone else on recent recorded performances, while among older discs Klemperer is at his best here in terms of structural grip.

The great success of this issue lies in the conducting, since Young’s instinct for the all-important transitions in Bruckner is so sound and idiomatic – in fact she makes a few illustrious names sound a little self-indulgent by comparison. None of the other SACDs, all of which have some claims on our attention, eclipse this issue and this Oehms cycle in this regard. On the Leipzig and Amsterdam discs there is some world-class playing, and the MDR and Pentatone discs perhaps offer slightly better surround sound than this one, but the playing and recording from Hamburg are very successful also, and superior to that in Aachen and from Netherlands Radio. So overall a fine addition to this impressive Simone Young Hamburg cycle, and one of the best among recent SACD versions of Bruckner’s 6th.

Roy Westbrook

See earlier review by John Quinn

 

 




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