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Anton BRUCKNER (1824–1896)
Symphony No. 6 in A major, WAB 106 (1879-1881)
Urtext edition by Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live, 13 & 20 January 2019, Barbican Hall, London
World premiere recording of this edition. DSD
LSO LIVE LSO0842 SACD [56:01]

There is no shortage of excellent recordings of Bruckner’s Sixth these days – nor indeed of any of his symphonies; my standard recommendations are Karajan and Schaller, but there are many others almost as equally recommendable such as the recent Haitink, the classic Horst Stein recording included in the newly remastered and reissued Decca Eloquence “Nine Symphonies” set and more controversial, even eccentric accounts by such as Klemperer and Ballot. In short, although one can increasingly take excellent sound for granted, a new recording must be special in terms of interpretation to compete.

I am indebted to my friend Ken Ward, Retired Editor of The Bruckner Journal, for his clarification of the USP of this live recording, which is derived from two performances given last January. The innovation is that Rattle uses a new edition prepared by Dr Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs, which is the result of part of a project to edit all of Bruckner's works anew within the next twenty years. Having performed it many times, Rattle implements changes which involve treating the symphony as being in the same mould as Beethoven's Seventh and Mendelssohn's Italian and therefore proceeds swiftly, with a rhythmic swing. There are only two tempo markings in the first movement: “Majestoso” for the first theme, “Bedeutender langsamer”, at the climactic recapitulation and “Tempo wie Angfangs”; at the very end of the coda. This is controversial insofar as it is difficult to define what speed “Majestoso” actually is, but most conductors feel that the brassy third theme should balance the first theme and hence be played at a similar tempo, providing an A-B-A structure; here Rattle takes the score literally and plays it at the same, slower tempo as the Gesangsperiode - “Bedeutender langsamer” – and as such it is dull.

Furthermore, although the general listener might not notice it, the cellos and basses play four, separated quavers per bar pizzicato in the opening bars of the first movement coda, up until when the pp dialogue in the horns gives way to forte trumpets and the cellos and basses this time play eight quavers in the bar, arco. Cohrs argues that this change from pizzicato to arco is implied by the fact that as Bruckner wrote 'arco' at that point on the manuscript, he must have had pizzicato in mind up to that point - even though nowhere previously did he write 'pizz'. Whether that editorial change is germane or even very noticeable is a moot point, but it is there and audible; of more importance is whether the greater general swing Rattle imparts to the movement is aesthetically successful.

Bruckner has never been Rattle’s forte and my initial impressions were that he replicates the one criticism most frequently levelled at the otherwise admired Karajan recording, which is that the opening of the first movement is too rushed to sound “Majestoso”, and although the durations of their respective movements are virtually identical overall, Karajan invariably sounds the more purposeful and steadier. The BPO are certainly encouraged to deliver the first fanfares with greater heft and Schwung than the LSO, who sound nervy and pusillanimous by comparison; I am sure they are capable of greater heft in the bass and timpani department but Rattle has deliberately toned them down The effect of the first half of the first movement is somewhat lacklustre and unimposing until the accelerando marking the return of the main theme fortissimo. The martial third theme here is somewhat more imposing but at no point am I gripped by the music-making until the brass come into their own around eight minutes in at the recapitulation of the first theme; from then on, tension is maintained more effectively and without undue haste and management of the coda is really effective. The effect is very different from, for example, Klemperer’s massive, stately progress through the movement where he hardly applies any accelerando at all to the coda.

Presumably it is as a result of Rattle’s deliberately sprightlier approach that the Adagio is somewhat swifter than most yet, but for me it lacks gravitas. The “love song” unfurls tenderly and the funereal lament is similarly touching but others find more yearning and poignancy here and the LSO cannot match the depth of sound Karajan coaxes from his Berliners; his oboist is noticeably warmer of tone, too. Again, despite some lovely playing, the movement does not here grip me throughout as it does in more overtly expressive and released recordings and I do not think that my suspicion that longueurs are lurking in what come across as a long movement here is by any means the fault of the music itself. This is all the more surprising given the premise of the approach I refer to in my opening paragraph above, that Rattle is aiming for greater fluidity, but perhaps any increased vigour on his part was meant to apply only to the other movements rather than the Adagio, which is hardly rushed. When listening to a Rattle recording, I am nearly always conscious of his fear of commitment; he invariably tamps down anything so vulgar as overt emotion.

Far from being propulsive, the Scherzo is, surprisingly, more leisurely, closer to Klemperer, of all conductors: slow, grim, dogged and, as a result, rather dull. In the right hands, its tonal, rhythmic and harmonic ambiguity can make this music sound very intriguing indeed but it falls short here.

The finale is alert and assertive – and this time Rattle’s urgency almost pays off, but the result is too episodic and the blared fourths on the horns beginning a minute into the movement are weak; Karajan and Schaller make them scream thrillingly and the percussive third theme needs more bite. They also confer a far greater sense of homogeneity on a movement which can easily fragment. The A major chordal blast which heralds the coda, too, lacks fire and conviction. It is little omissions like those which cumulatively vitiate the overall impact of this performance.

This account of Bruckner’s most enigmatic symphony is interesting for its experimentation with tempi in the first movement but in truth it is not so much poor as tentative and not very interesting; it lacks consistency, and a certain debilitating restraint or understatement prevent it from rivalling the greatest versions.

Ralph Moore

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