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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 6 in A major (1879-81 ed. Leopold Nowak) [52:42]
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi
rec. live, 20-22 May 2010, Alte Oper Frankfurt, Germany.
RCA 88875131262 [52:42]

This is the fifth volume of RCA’s Bruckner Symphony series with Paavo Järvi and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. It has been preceded by numbers 4, 5, 7 and 9. Each of these has been well reviewed here and in most other places. This Sixth is also a fine performance, as the Järvi series looks increasingly likely to be another valuable addition to an increasingly swollen catalogue of modern Bruckner cycles.

We can assume it will be a cycle, as the spine of the CDs of 4, 5, 6 and 7 bear the capital letters U, C, K, and N so that a cycle of 1 to 9 on the shelf could spell “A.BRUCKNER” – except that the Ninth has been issued already with no final letter R but with a blank spine. This also implies no number 0, which was written after No.1. If only Bruckner had had aristocratic forebears, his ‘von’ would allow AvBRUCKNER and a full symphony cycle of his ten mature works in that genre. There's more serious confusion in RCA’s planning in that we are now offered only CDs and not the SACDs we had for the earliest issues, of numbers 7 and 9. The booklets mention SACD mastering credits for the others, but not in which territories they will be available on disc.

Järvi wrote in his booklet note for the Fourth “I deliberately try to stay clear of the so-called “traditional” approach, avoiding the typical monumental, heavy and pseudo-religious-kitsch” and he could just as well have said this of the present issue. It has the same qualities of fairly swift tempi and straightforwardness in interpretation, but without sounding routine or superficial. The orchestral playing is always responsive and often very eloquent. There is tautness in the tense pp strings that announce the opening rhythm, and at the thrilling ff brass entry of the first subject the trumpets and trombones are absolutely together. The songful periods of the music are as beguiling as they should be, but never indulged, always taken in tempo so that the movement never flags. The momentum is maintained throughout the coda of the movement, which Tovey called “one of the greatest passages Bruckner ever wrote … passing from key to key beneath a tumultuous surface sparkling like the Homeric seas.” The only slightly false moment is on the last page, where Bruckner’s molto ritardando is nicely judged until just before the final chord where Järvi inserts a clear ‘comma’. It’s spontaneous-sounding enough – this recording is from live performances - but it might not stay in one’s affections after a few hearings.

The second movement’s basic pulse might be thought a touch swift for an adagio. This is the sort of thing Robert Simpson meant when he wrote that the movement “is often played too fast (and) will reward the slowest playing that artistry, technique and courage can afford.” Certainly Järvi’s time of 15:16 is less than the 17:00 norm that others favour, but the sense of flow is appealing, holds the attention, and there is no lack of tenderness in the playing. The lower strings have fine presence at the opening, and the keening oboe counterpoint is delicately touched in. For the wonderful second theme (bar 25) the string playing is properly rapturous – “Listen to it with reverence” said Tovey, “for the composer meant what he said and is speaking of sacred things.”

The scherzo has good rhythmic impetus, and the fleeting evanescent mood that the scurrying string figures imply are etched in with deft playing. Here Järvi’s speed makes good his claim about avoiding the ‘monumental, heavy’ style in Bruckner. The movement’s tempo markings are nicht schnell (not fast) for the scherzo and langsam (slow) for the trio. I had thought Jaap van Zweden’s Challenge Classics timing of 7:44 would always be the swiftest of modern versions and it still is, but Järvi runs him very close at 7:48. Volkmar Andreae’s 1953 Vienna Symphony 50-minute Sixth is the quickest of all overall, but still takes 8:28 for this movement.

The various tempo changes in the finale make it difficult for any conductor really to exert a sense of structural grip and symphonic direction, but here Järvi does not try to use a fast speed to integrate all the sections. You have to look to Marek Janowski on his beautifully recorded Pentatone SACD for an effective execution of that approach. Janowski’s 12:54 is not for Järvi, whose 14:11 is the closest he gets to a traditional tempo on this performance, and he makes it work well, with a fine blaze in the coda to cap an excellent addition to this increasingly impressive series.

Roy Westbrook


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