Review: Bruckner Symphony 6 and 9, Wagner: Parsifal Prelude & Siegfried Idyll / Gewandhausorchester Leipzig / Andris Nelsons (conductor) / Deutsche Grammophon
A towering Bruckner 9th. A different Bruckner 6th…
First the good news. This is a Bruckner 9 as imposing and grand as you are likely to hear (provided you like this kind of approach) and one of the best 9ths to have appeared in recent years. From the opening bars, Nelsons and the absolutely gorgeous Gewandhaus brass and strings set the atmosphere. Mystery abounds in the nervous tremolandos and when the first climax appears the effect is bold and compelling. The tension is held throughout with the recapitulation sounding impressive and the finale of the first movement splendidly captured with majestic gestures. The Scherzo that follows is ideally paced with every detail heard clearly, the driving rhythm energetic and commanding.
the playing of the Gewandhaus is so good I could have written a separate review praising it. It is that good.
As for the magisterial Adagio (the last track in this recording, alas Nelsons opts for the 3-movement incomplete work), it is ideally paced at 24 minutes. It is here that the listener can admire the opulence of the Gewandhaus strings and you might wonder if this is beauty at the expense of depth. But this is hardly the case here: Nelsons captures both the tensions and the ethereal qualities of the music, the violent juxtapositions delivered in magnificent fashion.
In the end, this is one of the better Bruckner 9ths to have emerged in recent years. Nelsons sticks to the score and his way with the music is pretty straightforward. He is in full command of the mighty Gewandhaus Orchestra when delivering the devastating climaxes and seems to know how crucial it is for this work to adhere to steady tempos. (the recently reviewed Jansons BRSO recording is equally impressive, albeit an antithetical approach altogether, focusing more on the urgency of the music and less on monumentality).
I started this review with the good news, so you might expect that the bad news has to do with the performance of the 6th in this set. Well, the news isn’t exactly bad, for this 6th is a very good rendition overall, but it just falls short of being great due to some peculiar tempo choices. While I like the pacing of the first movement (not too fast, not too slow), I have a minor concern with Nelson’s habit of understating the more lyrical passages. Take the second theme for example. When it arrives, it sounds so uneventful that much of the beauty is lost. And then there is the coda. Because let’s be honest, this coda, described by Tovey as being one of Bruckner’s greatest passages, is a feast for the ears, the music passing through every key. I just wish Nelsons would have emphasized more the crucial role of the oboe here. When compared with a few of my favourite recordings (Wand, Sawallisch, Haitink, Celibidache, Blomstedt/San Francisco, Klemperer of course) the understatement is evident. While other conductors emphasize this oboe section or simply highlight the ascending brass that follows (Celibidache), Nelsons downplays its significance. And speaking of brass, it sounds oddly subdued in the fortissimo passages of the coda, again compared to other recordings. Apart from that, the Majestoso character of the whole movement does come out splendidly.
But the real oddity here is the great Adagio. Paced at 19:40 minutes this is only a tad faster than Celibidache but much slower than the competition. OK, there is much to admire here when the orchestra is concerned: the string playing is simply phenomenal. But the oboe again is often hidden behind the rich walls of sound coming from the strings. And Nelsons stretches the tempo to its limits, so much that the themes are about to fall apart: there were times that I thought I might have mistakenly skipped the tracks and been listening to the Siegfried Idyll instead (which is featured on the same set). As much as I like Jochum’s push and pull approach in Bruckner and Celibidache’s heavenly lengths, here the pacing of the Adagio is disproportional compared to the other three movements. There is a rhythmic pulse that drives all four movements of this symphony, but Nelsons lets this partly disintegrate (Celibidache somehow manages to hold it together). Here the second movement sounds as if it were a work of its own and it gets a very Mahlerian treatment that I doubt fits the scope of this symphony (and Bruckner’s adagios in general). And again, I wish Nelsons would let the oboe be prominent towards the end of the second movement: there is this great moment, where during its last appearance, its lamenting tune now sounds cathartic. Only here its intensity is lost.
As for the Scherzo and the Finale, things return to normal which is a relief. No complaints here. The climaxes come off especially well, with particular emphasis on the timpani. But be prepared for a few idiosyncrasies: for instance, in the Finale Nelsons makes the second section of the development sound more like an adagio, its purpose nearly missed. Also, some woodwinds are under focused, despite their beautiful playing, but this is a small price to pay.
So what to make of this set? I would recommend it for the brilliant 9th. As for the 6th, it is recommended to those who like the Adagio of the 6th to sound like a never-ending Wagnerian ode and don’t mind too many tempo-shifts. The playing of the Gewandhaus orchestra can only be described as heavenly and the recorded sound by Deutsche Grammophon is full and vivid.
PS. I don’t like repeating myself but the playing of the Gewandhaus is so good I could have written a separate review praising it. It is that good.
There is a new discussion thread in our Facebook group, asking you how you perceive the 6th symphony, in case you want to share your views about that particular symphony there. Otherwise you can leave a comment here.