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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No 6, WAB 106 (1879-1891, ed. Nowak)
BBC Philharmonic/Juanjo Mena
rec. 10 & 11 July 2012, MediaCityUK, Salford, UK
CHANDOS CHAN20221 [59:50]

I am unclear why it has taken nine years for this to be released, but given that Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony is no longer the Cinderella of the nine, a new issue must be of considerable merit to compete with recent versions by Haitink, Schaller and Jansons or with more established “classic” recordings in the catalogue by Karajan, Stein or, far more controversially, Klemperer.

Nor had I any particular reason to have great expectations of this recording insofar as, with the best will in the world, I had not necessarily previously bracketed the estimable BBC Philharmonic with the great Bruckner orchestras; furthermore, I was wholly unfamiliar with the conductor in this or any other repertoire.

I can only say that I have been taught an object lesson about the importance of jettisoning prejudices and retaining an open mind before embarking on the auditioning of any new recording: this is a splendid, expertly conducted performance played with huge panache.

The creeping menace of the opening immediately establishes the right mysterious atmosphere and Mena keeps a firm and steady grip on proceedings, building and building through the swift succession of moods from the martial to the pastoral, up to the majestic restatement of the primary theme in the magnificent A major brass chorale at 9:14. He then steers his way confidently through the rhythmic complexities and bewildering modulations of the coda to engineer a wholly satisfying climax. At no point am I conscious of any unnecessary slackening of tension; “Bedeutender langsamer” casts no shadow over the final section and is thus not allowed to become an instruction which clogs the momentum of the movement as a whole – a flaw which, to my ears, renders Rattle’s LSO Live recording dull.

The Adagio here is, on paper, one of the slowest in the catalogue, matching even that by Celibidache, but it is beautifully shaped and I experience no longueurs or wandering of attention while listening. This has much to do with Mena’s careful grading of dynamics; he is happy to let his brass off the leash and let them overwhelm the listener with a wash of golden tone and the legato of the string-playing is especially lovely; the softly sighing conclusion is meltingly played. Otherwise, Mena’s speeds are conventional: the Scherzo is uncompromising, its two outer sections suffused with threat and nervous tension, enfolding a suitably sonorous, Mahlerian Trio. The conflict and agitation of the finale are unhesitatingly embraced; we are plunged into a titanic struggle between the forces of light and dark where the uncertainty of a victorious outcome is underscored by constant, nervy harmonic sidesteps. Loud, confident outbursts by the brass are deliberately made to sound prematurely hollow and bombastic by the muttering pizzicati on the lower strings and the violent A major tonic ending is startling but never entirely convincing – Mena triumphantly conveys all these subtleties.

This is a standard CD issue and I can only say that the regular digital sound is ideal.

This is a recording to set alongside those mentioned in my opening paragraph – a thoroughly absorbing traversal of a once-neglected symphony which has now found its proper place in the Brucknerian canon as one of his masterpieces.

Ralph Moore

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