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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers

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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 6 in A, WAB 106 [54:35]
Hamburg Philharmonic/Simone Young
rec. 14-16 December 2013, Laeiszhalle, Hamburg, Germany

The booklet notes talk about how Bruckner's Sixth Symphony is "mysterious", indeed the most mysterious and cryptic of his symphonies. I've heard that before, but I've never understood it. This is the shortest mature Bruckner symphony, by a long shot. It's the catchiest and most tuneful, again by a long shot. It's also the most old-fashioned, with traditional classical forms, structures recognizable from their use by Beethoven, and well-signposted movements. In the Fifth or Eighth symphonies, a new listener will spend a good half-hour wondering: where is this going? Where am I? Where did that melody go? Not so here.

That's in part because of the decisive nature of the themes. The Seventh has Bruckner's best tunes, I think, but it starts with 45 minutes of slow or slow-ish music. Here you have the menacing, warlike first tune, a funeral march, and a slashing downward charge to start the finale. The ears easily find their way. The emotional journey is a heroic one, fraught with emotion, but of a different kind from the other mature Bruckner symphonies. Most of them reach their climaxes in ringing adagio perorations: especially 7 and 8. In this one, the adagio never reaches a loud, ecstatic climax. Instead, the heart of the piece is in the adagio's ending: a long, eloquent whisper.

All that description is backed up by Simone Young's interpretation, which is relatively quick all around, and totally straightforward. My favourite movement of Young's performance is the scherzo, unusually full and rich in sound, and benefiting from the Hamburg Philharmonic's terrific violas, cellos, and basses. Young is, however, inflexible about tempo: Bruckner wrote in many changes of speed, which don't always get honoured here. Notice how oddly fast the first movement seems, at about 5:05-5:30, compared to the surrounding music. She also ignores Bruckner's insistence that the first movement end on an emphatic staccato chord.

A couple months ago I participated in a blind "tasting" of around 30 Bruckner Sixths. We started with just one movement, then proceeded to the complete symphony, eliminating recordings - and learning their identities - as we went along. Some mighty names fell quickly (Karajan had a "perfect" score of universal dislike), while others reached the finals with ease. My top two turned out to be legends: Klemperer/EMI and Celibidache/EMI.

I don't know how Simone Young's performance would have fared in that competition. Everything here is good, well-played and enjoyable. The live recording doesn't pick up much if any audience noise and the orchestra is almost spotless. Young has thought through the score very well, and solves a lot of difficult issues. For one thing, she gets the balance between the four movements absolutely right. My favourite, Celibidache, fails here: the adagio is so divine, so otherworldly, that everything following it sounds underwhelming in comparison. Balances within individual movements are important too, since Bruckner micro-manages with finicky tempo adjustments. The finale is an unqualified success, while the adagio seems comparatively unemotional.

I guess I'm not completely inspired. Gary Higginson thought Young's Bruckner Third fell just short of the necessary excitement and inspiration necessary, particularly at big "demonic" climaxes. There's a little softness here too. All praise for the flawless string rhythm in the opening bars, but the timpani should pound that rhythm just as relentlessly, when they get the chance later. The way the cellos phrase that great opening theme, in its first entrance, is wooden and plain compared to the magic Kent Nagano's Berliners conjure. The adagio needs to do more expressive work. The brass should explode in the finale at 12:24, and in the last bars, the balance shouldn't be so French-horn-heavy. At least I think that's why the ending is a letdown, despite its terrific speed.

The sound is okay, and Gary Higginson's review says the concert hall is "claustrophobic" in person, which isn't the case here. However, it's an unanswered question whether my issues with the balancing among brass instruments are because of the performance or the recording. Overall, a very competent CD, but not one you need. Among recent recordings by second-tier German orchestras, this is not nearly as good as Nagano's Harmonia Mundi outing. If you need an SACD, pickings are slim: Marek Janowski is at about this level, but Jaap van Zweden is at his very best and most surprising-until, alas, a slower, less energetic finale.

Brian Reinhart

Previous review: John Quinn


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