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

Simone Young’s Bruckner cycle has been evolving at a fairly leisurely pace but apparently the final instalments, comprising symphonies 5, 7 and 9, are to be issued during 2015. I’ve reviewed several of the previous issues and have been impressed by what I’ve heard, as have most of my colleagues who have reported on them. That said, Stephen Francis Vasta was not greatly taken with the reading of the First Symphony (review). Ms Young has also recorded the early Studiensinfonie (1863), though we don’t appear to have reviewed that disc (Oehms OC 686).

Hitherto one distinguishing feature of this Young cycle has been the adherence to the original versions of Bruckner’s scores. In this instance no editorial considerations apply, however, since the Sixth, which is one of his most concise symphonic works, was not subject to any revisions by the composer.

It’s always seemed to me that the opening material of the first movement is challenging to pace – and Bruckner’s tempo indication, Majestoso, is not ideally helpful. Simone Young propels the music forward quite urgently. When I started to do some comparisons I found that her basic pulse is very similar to that adopted by Bernard Haitink in his 1970 Concertgebouw reading. Looking back to my review of that performance I see that I felt Haitink was a bit too fleet of foot in this opening and in the material that subsequently derives from it. I prefer the slightly broader pace that he adopts in his 2003 live recording from Dresden (review). Klemperer’s 1964 traversal with the New Philharmonia is much more steady (review) and while I continue to admire the gaunt majesty of Klemperer’s reading I’ve come to think over the years that his tempo for the first subject is too ponderous. I have a similar view of Georg Tintner’s 1995 New Zealand Symphony version (review).

So Simone Young is quite quick off the mark in this symphony but while I might wish for a little more breadth in the first subject I soon came to enjoy the freshness of her take on this first movement. When the full brass revisit the opening material (8:03) the performance may lack the craggy grandeur of Klemperer but instead Ms Young suggests, perhaps, the arrival of a proud troop of cavalry, an impression that’s reinforced by the tonal splendour of the Hamburg brass section. Furthermore, this Hamburg performance is responsive to the lyrical stretches of the movement and the relatively fleet pacing of the faster material gives what we hear a somewhat Classical feel. Indeed, Michael Lewin says in his notes that this symphony is something of a “bridge” in Bruckner’s output and this observation prompted me to wonder if those conductors, like Klemperer and Tintner, who are broader in their pacing may be viewing the score from the perspective of Bruckner’s subsequent symphonic masterpieces, especially the last two.

The Adagio, to which Bruckner adds the instruction Sehr feierlich (‘very solemnly’), is based on three separate themes. The opening has a tragic feel to it, which is emphasised by the keening oboe line. This first subject is very well done here while the yearning second subject (2:27) benefits from really burnished playing. The final piece of the thematic jigsaw, a funeral march-like passage, is invested with dignity by Ms Young and her fine orchestra. Theirs is a very impressive account of the movement; Young paces the music intelligently and handles the transitions between Bruckner’s various tempi extremely well. Having been rather slow by comparison in the first movement Klemperer proves that you don’t need to take a slow movement too slowly to bring out the emotive power of the music. Though swifter than any of the versions that I’ve used as comparators here, his is a very moving rendition and at the start the oboe line really pierces the texture although that may be due in part to the recording, which is now starting to show its age. Tintner is very expansive indeed in this movement – arguably too expansive. Interestingly, Haitink’s two recordings have identical playing times; his second reading benefits from superb playing on the part of the Staatskapelle Dresden. Heard in isolation Simone Young’s approach is extremely convincing and comparisons do nothing to modify that view.

I like her way with the scherzo, to which she imparts strong rhythmic energy. However, I’m afraid I find her treatment of the trio too deliberate. Klemperer is rather too stiff of gait throughout the movement. Haitink’s Dresden performance strikes me as well-nigh ideal; the scherzo material is suitably fleet and he’s not too slow during the trio.

I mentioned earlier that the opening of the first movement does not seem easy to pace. If that’s true then how much more true is it of the finale, not least because the music seems to start from nowhere – in media res, perhaps. The initial tempo instruction – Bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell – might suggest a certain ambivalence on Bruckner’s part and it’s far from easy to judge the speed to adopt. I must say that I find Simone Young’s choice of tempo is convincing; even more importantly, as in the second movement she seems to handle the different speeds and the transitions between them in an adroit fashion. Throughout this finale she invests the faster episodes with well-judged urgency while in the lyrical stretches her conducting is nicely expressive. She brings the symphony home in a golden burst of glory when the first subject of the work’s opening movement is reprised to bring everything back full circle.

Overall, despite one or two reservations – chiefly concerning the trio of the third movement - this is an impressive and convincing reading of Bruckner’s Sixth and it’s a fine addition to what is already a noteworthy cycle. I was only able to listen to this hybrid SACD as a conventional CD but in that medium the recording sounds very handsome. Though this is a live performance the Hamburg audience is commendably silent even though the performances took place in December, right in the middle of the coughs and sneezes season– would that some British audiences were as well disciplined. The notes are useful.

I’ve been enjoying following the evolution of Simone Young’s stimulating Bruckner cycle. Anyone who has been similarly following it can invest in this latest volume with confidence. I look forward keenly to the concluding releases in the series.

John Quinn

The Simone Young Bruckner cycle on MusicWeb International
Symphony No 0 (Original version 1869)
Symphony No 1 (Original version 1865/66)
Symphony No 2 (Original version 1872)
Symphony No 3 (Original version 1873)
Symphony No 4 (Original version 1874)
Symphony No 8 (Original version 1887)


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