Bruckner sym6 LSO0842

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.
LSO Live LSO0842 SACD [56]

Having recently reviewed Simon Rattle’s latest re-recording of Bruckner’s Romantic Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra, I revisited the same team’s earlier recording of the Sixth to see if my views had changed at all since first listening to it. Certainly, Rattle has been conducting and recording the symphonies of Bruckner for some time now, from the early CBSO Seventh Symphony of 1997, which soundly fitfully impressive if not quite of a piece as an interpretation at that point in time, via an oddly non-descript Fourth Symphony with the Berlin PO (part of a group of works, including Schubert’s Great Symphony and Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben all recorded around the same time and which he would have been better advised to steer clear of), culminating in a very good Ninth Symphony, also with the Berliners. That recording had the unique distinction of being the four movement 2011 completion by Samale/Mazzuca/Phillips/Cohrs, but even allowing for that uniqueness, was still an impressive performance of the (usual) first three movements by anyone’s standards, considerably better, than the roughly contemporaneous Abbado/Lucerne recording on Deutsche Grammophon, much lauded elsewhere but, to my ears, more whimsical and less cataclysmic than usual, in spite of the superb playing and sound. When relocated from Berlin to London to become Music Director of the LSO, Rattle then turned his attention to the Eighth and Sixth Symphonies, the latter being reviewed here, before once again revisiting the Fourth and Seventh (yet to be released).

Perhaps it is irrelevant to pass comment on the cover design – a splurge of blue with a load of bubbles on it – as having nothing to do with the composer or the quality of the music-making herein, but one wonders what was going through the minds of the marketing department. On a happier note, it is a real pleasure to record that the sound is fuller and richer than the LSO Live recordings of yore which, on my various machines, were blighted by an overly dry sound. It goes without saying that the LSO play supremely well for their Music Director at the time.

But what of the performance itself? The most “quixotic” Bruckner’s works, the Sixth has long been considered the “Cinderella” in the Bruckner canon and isn’t performed as often as his other mature works, but it has still enjoyed much success on record. Klemperer’s recording made for EMI (now Warner) has its admirers, but is rather ruled out for me with its over-swift and terse second movement. Jochum’s unique and fluid way with Bruckner works especially well with the Sixth in both his versions from Bavaria (DG) and Dresden (EMI/Warner), as well as a late, live recording made with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1980 (available on Tahra). Karajan’s recording (on DG), curiously, starts out as if sounding like a straight run-through for a first rehearsal but then grows into a performance of real stature, much admired by the composer and musicologist Robert Simpson, no less. Celibidache with the Munich PO (now on Warner Classics) combines slower than usual tempos with unique insights that work especially well in this symphony whilst, at another extreme, Sawallisch with the Bavarian State Orchestra (on Orfeo) finds real fire in the music, expertly balancing it with its inherent grandeur. Of more recent provenance, Bernard Haitink’s last recording from 2017 (BR Classics) with the Bavarian RSO, finds similar qualities. All are supremely recommendable.

I have to declare that this Rattle recording does not form part of this elite group for me. It has the ‘distinction’ of performing the latest edition of the score by Benjamin Gunner-Cohrs, although the booklet gives little insight into any changes to the text which may have occurred – certainly, there a few, if any, that most listeners will detect – that is assuming, though, that some of Rattle’s interpretative “quirks” are from his interpretation of, rather than direction from, the score. One of them – and surely the most controversial/damaging – is the tempo adopted for the opening of the first movement. Marked Majestoso, the violins open the work by playing a rhythmic motif which reappears in various guises as the movement progresses. For some reason, Rattle plays this much faster than usual, perhaps eschewing the indication in the score that indicates bowing which keeps the bow on the string, therefore prohibiting the rhythmic figure from becoming too lively. Rattle just about gets away with it at the opening, when the theme is played on cellos and basses and the rhythm is on the violins, but when some thirty seconds later the same theme is taken up by the brass choir and the underpinning rhythm is taken over by percussion and strings, it sounds disastrously garbled. Since this is a passage which reappears more than once during this movement, including its coda, it has the unfortunate effect of holing the performance beneath the waterline and preventing it from ever attaining buoyancy. This is evident by the remainder of the movement, which seems curiously restrained, not least during the passage leading into the coda where Rattle has the horns playing much more quietly than usual so to bring out the otherwise inaudible oboe, thus robbing the music of its innate mystery. It is all rather unconvincing, really.

The second movement fairs better, Rattle pacing it broadly, but the damage has been done and the music never quite soars, as it does in the hands of Karajan or Celibidache, to name two other conductors who are similarly broad, but find considerably more mystery and Innigkeit. Curiously, the third movement is also taken at a leisurely pace, even more slowly than Celibidache (which doesn’t happen often) and while it does not exactly hang fire, nor does it especially engage either. Best of all is the final movement, which Rattle drives along quite spiritedly – I guess at the live performances of January 2019 in London from which this recording derives (although you would not know it from the lack of audience noise and applause), that this movement must have been quite exciting to witness but for the home listener it is all too little, too late. As I remarked at the beginning of the review, that early Bruckner Seventh Symphony from Birmingham from over twenty years ago seemed to be only fitfully impressive, but not quite a fully formed interpretation – sadly, much the same could be said of this recording of the Sixth.

Lee Denham

Previous reviews: Ralph Moore ~ Michael Wilkinson

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