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
are important too, since Bruckner micro-manages with finicky tempo
adjustments. The finale is an unqualified success, while the adagio seems
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
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.
Previous review: John Quinn