Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony is probably found most often in complete sets of Bruckner’s symphonies and less often released separately, as occurs with this CD. Issued by itself, this CD gives listeners an opportunity to appreciate this work on its own merits. While Bruckner’s Symphony no. 6 in A major (1881; first performed, 1883 [second and third movements only], with the entire work given its premiere in 1899, three year’s after Bruckner’s death) may not be as familiar as the ones that succeed it chronologically, it is an impressive work. Composed at the time when Anton Dvořák had just finished his own Sixth Symphony and Johannes Brahms his first two, Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony is separated from the composer’s previous one by five years. During that time Bruckner had revised his Third Symphony between 1876-77, before proceeding to compose the Sixth between 1879 and 1881.
While Bruckner’s Fourth, Seventh, and Eighth Symphonies are, perhaps, better known to modern audiences, the strength of this performance of the Sixth makes a case for returning from time to time to this somewhat neglected work. It resembles the composer’s other symphonies, in that the Sixth is a four-movement work, with the overt structural weight placed on the outer movements. Beyond the distinct theme groups that Bruckner customarily uses in his treatment of the first movement, the Sixth possesses a driving that is the result of both harmonic motion and rhythmic activity. The shifts of mood that may be seen to characterize the first movement of the Fourth Symphony are less dramatically different in Sixth, where transitions are essentially to the musical narrative of the piece.
The second movement is an extensive Adagio, which commentators like David Tovey have praised. In constructing this movement, Bruckner sets it apart from his other slow movements by employing sonata form, instead of a simpler binary or ternary structure. This movement merits attention as an orchestral Adagio possesses its own drama. It has a weight of its own through its formal structure and length. In this sense the point Scherzo offers the contrast in its lighter and more playful character. Where more sustained timbres occurred in the Adagio, the Scherzo is full of contrasts in which Bruckner allows various groupings of winds and brass to intersect some of the powerful tuttti sections in this movement. It is, perhaps, a less weighty Scherzo than is convention associates with a symphony by Bruckner, but it also fits wholly into the overall structure of the Sixth.
With the final movement, Bruckner opens the movement in a somewhat restrained way, as fragmentary ideas occur before he moves to the more extended theme groups. Some of the passages anticipate in a sense the drama that Bruckner would contribute to the concluding movement of the Eighth Symphony. Yet the Finale of the Sixth possesses its own character. Modal inflections color the harmonic structure as Bruckner explores the tonal possibilities of the movement. At the same time, some of the thematic ideas are redolent of a composer who appreciated fully the music of Richard Wagner, with echoes of ideas from Tristan und Isolde juxtaposed with original themes that only Bruckner could conceive. As driving as the first movement, the Finale is wonderfully effective in this highly convincing work that stands well among the middle of its composer’s symphonies.
In this performance Kent Nagano makes a strong case for Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony with a reading that demonstrates the power and lyricism of the work. Fully in command of the Orchestra, Nagano gives a powerful reading of the score. It is, perhaps, the Adagio that stands out as particularly effective. In that movement Nagano manipulates the string textures to wonderful effect, allowing the various woodwind timbres to emerge subtly. Those interested in this work will appreciate the way Nagano allows the Adagio to unfold in what is as evocative a slow movement as the one Bruckner composed in his Eighth Symphony.
Likewise, the pacing of the concluding section of the Finale shows the conductor’s masterful approach to this work and his sensitivity to Bruckner’s style. The brass chords are buoyant and precise, with a tone that complements the strings instead of standing apart from it. Woodwinds, when prominent, blend well and idiomatic. In fact, these colors emerge with marked distinction at the beginning of the Finale and set up the tone of the Symphony’s conclusion. Not only drawing on the strength of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin for the characteristically Brucknerian fortes, Nagano also arrives at some intimate chamber-music sounds in the outer movements, just as he had in the Adagio. Like Nagano’s recent Harmonia Mundi recording of the original version of the Third Symphony with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchestra (Harmonia Mundi CD HMC 901817), this recording of the Sixth is another fine addition to recent recordings of Bruckner’s works.
James L. Zychowicz