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Anton BRUCKNER (1824–1896)
Symphony No. 6 in A major, WAB 106 (1879-81) [55:15]
(1881 version: edition Robert Haas 1935)
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Bernard Haitink
rec. live, 4 & 5 May 2017, Philharmonie, Munich
BR KLASSIK 900147 [55:15]

Of Bruckner’s mature works, along with the Fifth it is the Sixth Symphony that I encounter least often in the concert hall. Bruckner described the Sixth as the “boldest” of his symphonies and, to use a parallel from Beethoven, the work was sometimes called Bruckner’s “Pastorale.” When it was commenced in 1879 only three of Bruckner’s symphonies had been performed. Completed in 1881 the Sixth was not subject to revision by Bruckner, yet Mahler who gave the première of the finished symphony in 1899 made substantial alterations; a task which didn’t need to be sanctioned as Bruckner had died three years previously. A first performance of the unabridged version was not given until 1901 at Stuttgart under Karl Pohlig.

A check on shows that most recordings of the Sixth use the 1881 version edited by Leopold Nowak in 1952 and used by a number of renowned conductors including Jochum, Wand, Blomstedt, Inbal, Barenboim and Thielemann. On this live 2017 recording with Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks from Munich, Bernard Haitink is conducting Bruckner’s original 1881 version in the edition Robert Haas published in 1935. I notice there was a recording of Haitink conducting the Sixth using the Haas version with this Bavarian radio orchestra back in 1985. The Haas version has been favoured on recordings by a distinguished group of conductors notably Furtwängler, Klemperer, Karajan and Celibidache. Composer, BBC producer and broadcaster Robert Simpson gave his support for the Haas version stating unequivocally “this is the one that should always be played.”

The Sixth seems to have a more secular quality rather than Bruckner’s characteristic religious spirituality, together with a sound-world comparable to walking round a cathedral. Striking throughout is the balance Haitink perceptively achieves from his players between overall weight and pellucid detail. In the opening movement Majestoso it feels as if an Alpine summit is emerging mysteriously, becoming visible through bright early morning haze. The pulse Haitink adopts maintains impressive momentum from a swirling character of restlessness to retreating down passively. Eugen Jochum has written that the “point of culmination” is contained in the opening movement and Haitink achieves his orchestral climaxes with significant impact. Permeating the movement is an overall sense of nobility with an undertow of reflection. The Adagio, marked Sehr feierlich (Very solemnly), is an emotional experience as Haitink sustains tenderness and radiant warmth with a distinct sense of sorrow and resignation never far away. Throughout the movement the shimmering strings sound quite stunning and praise is due here. Wild and squally music introduces the Scherzo, marked Nicht schnell (Not fast) - Trio. Langsam (Slowly), containing writing described in the notes by Wolfgang Teubner as having a character “reminiscent of an elfin dance in ghostly dreams”. Haitink provides an uplifting, highly confident atmosphere with a prominent feeling of light and shade. Glorious wind playing is noteworthy here, especially the evocative hunting horns. In the Finale, Bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell (Lively, but not too fast), Haitink masters, with profound assurance, the crucial and complex rhythmic requirements of the writing. Noticeably, the wide dynamics are well controlled by Haitink and the score culminates with a majestic blaze of sound.

Recorded live at Philharmonie, Munich the sound quality is engineered to a high standard, being clear with presence and excellent balance. The helpful booklet essay by Jörg Handstein adds to the excellence of the release.

Here on BR Klassik Bernard Haitink conducts the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks in a performance of the Sixth that can stand comparison with the finest recordings in the catalogue. My two primary recommendations, for their sense of engagement and elevated quality of performance, are from Günter Wand using the 1881 version (ed. Nowak 1952). Wand conducted several live radio broadcast recordings of the Sixth and my first choice is his 1999 performance from Münchner Philharmoniker at Philharmonie, Munich on Profil and second by Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin from 1995 at Philharmonie Berlin, also on Profil.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Dan Morgan


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