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Anton BRUCKNER (1824–1896)
Symphony No. 6 in A major, WAB 106 (1879-1881) [55:15]
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Bernard Haitink
rec. live, 4 & 5 May 2017, Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich
Reviewed as a press download (16-bit lossless)
BR KLASSIK 900147 [55:15]

In recent years I’ve heard Bernard Haitink give career-crowning performances of two Ninths, one by Mahler, the other by Bruckner. Lofty and profound, that’s precisely what one expects from a lifetime devoted to great music; but, unlike other conductors of advancing years, this quiet, self-effacing Dutchman hasn’t run out of ideas or stamina. Admittedly, I characterised his BRSO Mahler 3 as ‘old school [and] as comfortable as a favourite armchair’, but then I was comparing it with Iván Fischer’s paradigm-shifting performance with the Budapest Festival Orchestra (Channel Classics).

Haitink is no stranger to Bruckner, having recorded all the symphonies for Philips in the analogue era, not to mention a scorching Te Deum with the Wiener Philharmoniker in the digital one. The latter really storms the citadels of heaven, the final shouts hurled into the empyrean with overwhelming strength and certainty. That confidence is also present in the Sixth Symphony, which, inexplicably, is still one of the least played of Bruckner’s later works. Mahler, inveterate interventionist that he was, made extensive changes to the score at the premiere in 1889, but the composer himself wasn’t tempted to tinker.

Of the versions of the Sixth that I’ve heard over the years, Otto Klemperer’s classic EMI-Warner one with the New Philharmonia remains very special. As it was my first recording of the piece, I suppose I’ve ‘imprinted’ on it; and yet, the performance  sill delights and moves me every time. True, the sound overloads in the tuttis, but then Klemperer brings an aristocratic mien to the music that I’ve not encountered elsewhere, even from the likes of Eugen Jochum and Günter Wand. The horn playing in the Maestoso is out of this world, too.

In the 21st century, we’ve had recordings from, among others, Haitink in Dresden, Simone Young in Hamburg, Mariss Jansons in Amsterdam, Yannick Nézet-Séguin in Montreal, Mario Venzago in Berne, Rémy Ballot in St Florian, and Gerd Schaller with the Philharmonie Festiva.  Also, Christian Thielemann; his Dresden video from 2015 was much praised by John Quinn. As a quick perusal of our Review Index will confirm, there’s no shortage of fine Sixths out there. My comparatives – both live – are from Young and Wand; the latter, a live Munich Phil recording from 1999, strikes me as the most satisfying of his several Sixths.

So, on to Haitink, whose Maestoso is characterised by startling clarity and a powerful sense of purpose. The lower strings have exceptional body, and the testosterone-fuelled timps are simply splendid. Even more important, Bruckner’s paragraphs are nicely segued and not, as so often happens, needlessly parenthesised. Most striking, though, is the very strong pulse, notably in those timp-laced tuttis; this is the heartbeat of a strapping young yeoman, alive to life and all its possibilities. That youthful vigour is underlined by the bright-eyed playing and sound. And those horn figures? Well, they’re no less magical than Klemperer’s, the movement’s final peroration as emphatic as I’ve ever heard it.

The Adagio is certainly feierlich, yet it’s also mobile and wonderfully transparent; indeed, Haitink drives, details, shapes and terraces this music with a sure and steady kill born of decades on the podium. There’s not a flat spot anywhere, and the unfolding narrative – so full of gentle incident – is quietly compelling from start to finish. If the quality of the BRSO’s playing here is an index of their respect for this conductor – have the closing bars of this movement ever sounded so rapt? – then they must venerate him like no other. Really, this is music-making of the highest order, caught on the wing and completely free of pulled perspectives or audience interruptions.  

Surely this performance can’t get any better, I thought. Oh, but it can, and it does. The Scherzo is as ebullient – and as skittish – as any, and the interplay of instruments is superbly rendered in Peter Urban’s deep, wide and realistically balanced recording. There’s wit and wonder too, Bruckner’s bucolic tunes bouncing around like echoes in a sun-dappled valley. As expected, the Finale: Bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell is sensibly paced and proportioned. And while our yeoman strides on – where did he get those seven-league boots? – he still has time to rejoice in the beauty that surrounds him. The applause has been edited out, but I bet it was thunderous.

After such an engaging and uplifting performance, comparisons seem almost superfluous. But, I did promise. The Munich Phil play well for Wand, whose architectural skills – so vital in this vaulted and vaulting repertoire – are never in doubt. Wand, 87 when this recording was made, now sounds a little measured next to Haitink; then again, he’s resolutely ‘old school’ in his emphasis on refinement and nobility, qualities that make his accounts of Nos. 7, 8 and 9 so memorable. Trouble is, after Haitink’s hot-blooded Sixth he’s apt to sound a little cool. Still, momentum never flags, and the Profil recording – although not as immediate as the BR one – is warm. detailed and suitably spacious.

No, I wouldn’t want to be without the slow-burning Wand; his Bruckner is always so impeccable, so seamless, and so eloquent and innig when it matters. In those respects, Haitink may seem a tad impetuous – dishevelled, even – but both are strong and very convincing performances that deserve space on your shelf or hard drive. As for Young, she’s closer in spirit to Haitink than she is to Wand. The Oehms recording is clear and forthright too. Alas, in this company her Sixth now seems rather rushed, episodic and, at times, lightweight. Ultimately, though, these recordings underline just how good the Dutchman’s is, and why it should be at the very top of your to buy list.  

Haitink may be in the late autumn of his life and career, but his new Bruckner Sixth basks in the heat of high summer. A remarkable achievement all round.

Dan Morgan



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