Bruckner Symphony No. 6

Author: 
Richard Osborne

Bruckner Symphony No. 6

  • Symphony No. 6
  • Symphony No. 6

Suddenly, and not before time, the Sixth Symphony of Bruckner is riding high. And deservedly so since it is the tersest of his mature symphonies and the most openly exultant. Unlike the superficially more alluring Fourth, it needs a real musician to direct it, no mere master of orchestral ceremonies. What's more, it needs a Brucknerian with a passion for musical logic, a musical realist rather than a musical romantic. As such it is a work better suited to a Rosbaud, a Klemperer, or a Wand rather than someone like Jochum or Furtwangler however inspirational they may be at certain critical moments in the score.
As it happens, Wand's 1976 Cologne recording (currently available only as part of a ten-CD RCA set: (CD) GD60075, 2/90) was something of a disappointment, largely on account of the playing; but this newer version, recorded at two concerts in Hamburg in 1988, is superb. If it doesn't depose Klemperer's unimpeachably classic 1964 EMI recording, it none the less sits comfortably alongside it. The playing of the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra—which Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt once headed and which Wand has led since 1982—is superlative: self-effacing but beautifully prepared texturally and, above all, in matters of rhythm, as orchestras that sit at Wand's feet invariably are.
A master-conductor of the old school, like Klemperer but less idiosyncratic in matters of tempo, Wand is one of those old-fashioned musicians who like to relate individual parts of a symphony to the larger whole. I don't think it is entirely coincidental that Wand's tempos, movement by movement, have a certain mathematical congruence. The outer movements are respectively minim=60 and 80; the slow movement begins at crotchet=40; the Scherzo is a shade under crotchet=120, the Trio quaver=80. The stop-watch, tempting hussy that she is, will tell us that the two performances are well-nigh identical in pacing: Wand takes 54'55'', Klemperer 54'54''. In practice, Klemperer's tempos are broader than Wand's in the outer movements but quicker elsewhere. They are also a good deal more individualistic. Klemperer takes Bruckner's first movement Maestoso marking very much at its face value but manages at the same time to give the music tremendous dramatic presence by the sheer ardour of the playing, the reading at once rigorous in method and festive in spirit. Wand, by contrast, is quicker, the tempo more akin to what we would expect of a plain symphonic Allegro. It is Maestoso, but it has plenty of impulse and the various gradations of the underlying pulse are beautifully geared. The second subject group in particular has great grace and expressive allure and how magically the strings' G major entry at fig. L (7'00'') comes into view. Without yielding anything in dramatic tension, Wand brings out this movement's lyricism in a way that is unprecedented on record.
In the 1976 Wand recording his tempo for the Adagio was as brisk as Klemperer's, though without the keening beauty of the Klemperer, where the oboes' opening plaint gives off the feel of Passion music. Wand is now much closer to Bruckner's simple direction, Sehr feierlich. The strings are full-bodied, the playing rapt. The second subject is particularly moving, bearing out Tovey's injunction: ''Listen to it with reverence, for the composer meant what he said and he is speaking of sacred things''. Transitions are also memorably shaped, especially the drop down to the Grave at fig. D which itself takes on an almost Elgarian nobility and numenosity. In Scherzo, Trio and finale the tempos are all superbly judged in themselves and finely sustained. The finale is a particular—nay, a crowning—success. It sets boldly forth, encounters crisis, develops a kind of manic joy, and finally achieves real joy, blazing and ineluctable. And all the time these exhilarating transformations of mood are never indulged by Wand (a failing with most conductors, who are duly unhorsed). They are simply beautifully stage-managed within a form that Haydn would have been proud to erect.
The recording is excellent. It has body and presence with a decent degree of distance and reverberation. Occasionally, the trumpets seem over-prominent, the horns too retiring. I noticed this in particular in the first movement coda where Wand hasn't balanced the textures quite as shrewdly or as magically as Klemperer. The trumpet entry two bars after fig. X sounds over a pianissimo trombone pedal that is typical of the music's iridescence at this point but which we don't quite hear in the Wand.
The Klemperer remains, perhaps, first choice. It is the performance of a lifetime, the sound is fresh, the price tempting. But it is no longer entirely in a class of its own. The Wand, too, is a truly great performance of this wonderful work.'

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