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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No.6, WAB 106 (1879-1881, ed. Nowak) [59.50]
BBC Philharmonic/Juanjo Mena
rec. 10-11 July 2012, MediaCityUK, Salford, UK
CHANDOS CHAN 20221 [59:50]

Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony has not always been lucky in the recording studio, which is odd given that Bruckner – without losing any of his own voice - seems to have wanted to write a symphony which might appeal more strongly to Viennese audiences than other, less compromising pieces. The outer movements are tauter than in other symphonies, with their forward thrust more vividly emphasised. Clear contrasts between lighter and darker elements emphasise the musical arguments, and the stomping scherzo has a direct appeal. And this is the shortest symphony (though hardly brief) from No.4 onwards. Interestingly, it is also the one with the fewest arguments about Bruckner’s final thoughts. Kind friends perhaps felt less need to give ‘helpful’ advice, and Bruckner himself seems to have had a confidence in this work that precluded further amendment and revision.

This performance has an interesting attention to fine details and reveals much about Bruckner’s ideas and orchestration, and the characteristically warm Chandos sound enhances the interpretation. Mena develops very well the beauties of Bruckner’s writing, as in the passage that begins at 13.20 in the first Majestoso movement, steadily building momentum while losing none of the lyricism. Such attention is evident throughout the performance.

But that attention to beauty will divide opinion in the second movement. The movement is marked Adagio. Sehr feierlich. (‘Slow. Very solemn.’) Adagio has an original meaning of ‘at ease’, with a sense of gentle flow. An interesting question is whether this recording is simply just very slow, to the extent that occasionally flow is lost. Also, one might question whether ‘very solemn’ is compatible with the stasis found in places here. I searched out a dozen or so rival recordings. Even the funereal Eschenbach dispatches the movement in 20.08, and the stately Colin Davis at just under 20 minutes. Andris Nelsons in his disappointing and rather disjointed recent release from DG, comes in at under 20 minutes. Most performances are around 17-18 minutes. Gunter Wand, in his various recordings, was faster, normally at just over 15 minutes. The classic Klemperer recording, from 1965, is quicker still, at 14.42. Klemperer was never one to linger in slow movements, and the gain in his recording is a structural coherence, a sense of pulse, with no loss of dignity or detail. Mena is slowest of all, at 20.22, and I was not convinced: but others may well be entranced.

The remaining two movements are less controversial, though I would have preferred a little more coherence in the difficult final movement. There are moments of apparent diffidence where a more confident thrust would hide the joins a little more convincingly.

A mystery of this recording is why such an interesting performance has had to wait nine years for a release, some years after Juanjo Mena left the BBC Philharmonic.

Overall, then, this is a performance of many beauties, and rewarding for lovers of Bruckner. But it does not displace other recordings. In his EMI/Warner recording, Klemperer set the bar very high, and this remains my first preference.

Michael Wilkinson

Previous review: Ralph Moore

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