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Anton BRUCKNER (1824–1896)
Symphony No. 6 in A major, WAB 106 (1881 version) [52:48]
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Dausgaard
rec. 2018, Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway
BIS BIS-2404 SACD [53:21]

Ten years ago, BIS released to enthusiastic critical acclaim a recording of the 1877 version of Bruckner's Symphony No. 2 in C minor in its ‘Opening Doors’ series with Thomas Dausgaard at the helm of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra. He returns to the composer in this latest offering from the label, this time with the Sixth Symphony.  The product details state that this is "the first in a Bruckner mini-series from Thomas Dausgaard and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, appearing together on disc for the first time".

Although the Fourth and Seventh symphonies have been the focus of the most interest amongst collectors and concertgoers, I've always gravitated towards the Fifth and the Sixth. I've never quite understood the epithet 'Cinderella', as the latter's referred to by some. I have to admit that, sadly, it has suffered comparative neglect in the concert halls. The English composer and essayist Robert Simpson held that the Sixth contains some of Bruckner’s most beautiful and arresting music: "Its themes are exceptionally beautiful, its harmony has moments of both boldness and subtlety, its instrumentation is the most imaginative he had yet achieved, and it possesses a mastery of classical form that might even have impressed Brahms."

The symphony, in four movements, was written between September 24, 1879 and September 3, 1881 and bears a dedication to his landlord, Anton van Ílzelt-Newin. Bruckner, a dab hand at revisiting and revising his works seems to have had little inclination to rework this one. For some reason, only the two middle movements were performed during his lifetime. In 1899, Mahler conducted a full performance, making some substantial cuts. It was only in 1935, almost forty years after the composer’s death, that a true premiere was realized.

There’s plenty of power, intensity and propulsion in the opening movement, and Dausgaard makes the most of the complex rhythmic patterns and adventurous harmonies. The wide dynamic contrasts are superbly captured. Above all there’s a fine sense of structural cohesion.

The exquisite Adagio, one of Bruckner's most exalted, is what drew me to this symphony initially. Simpson described it as the most perfectly realized slow sonata design since the Adagio of Beethoven's Hammerklavier. I like Dausgaard's pacing which, at 16:38, sits between Klemperer's brisk 14:42 and Karajan's more expansive 18:58. It works very well for me. The rapt playing and glowing intensity of the strings is particularly striking. Dausgaard fervently fashions the melodic line and fully plumbs the depths.

Dausgaard handles the interplay between the instrumental sections deftly in the Scherzo. The witty, sharp accents of the bass notes form an effective backing for the will-o’-the-wisp gossamer string effects. Also successful are the luminescent woodwinds. In the Trio the burnished brass make their presence felt. 

The handling and pacing of the finale are admirable. Throughout, tension is built up towards the final peroration which is delivered with ebullience and splendour.

The excellent notes by Horst A. Scholz are in English, French and German. The well-engineered recording quality is second to none, enabling the listener to register an abundance of detail. This persuasively played work could be no better served.  I look forward with relish to the subsequent releases in this cycle.

Stephen Greenbank

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