March 12, 2020


Bruckner: Symphony No. 6. Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Thomas Dausgaard. BIS. $19.99 (SACD).

Mahler: Symphony No. 6. Essener Philharmoniker conducted by Tomáš Netopil. Oehms. $28.99 (2 CDs).

     One of the many intriguing coincidences uniting the works of Bruckner and Mahler is that both composers wrote 11 symphonies – sort of. To get to that number for Bruckner, one must include both “No. 0,” written after No. 1 but withdrawn by the composer, and “No. 00,” the early so-called “Study Symphony.” Add those to the numbered nine, including the unfinished Ninth, to get 11. As for Mahler, the nine completed works are added to the unfinished Tenth and Das Lied von der Erde, a symphony-in-all-but-name that would have been No. 9 had Mahler not superstitiously decided to avoid attaching that digit to it.

     Within both these 11-symphony universes, Symphony No. 6 is the midpoint, and both Bruckner’s Sixth and Mahler’s Sixth have some oddities that remain intriguing. In Bruckner’s case, the Sixth is the only symphony that did not have revisions made to it by the composer – indicating a level of self-confidence at odds with Bruckner’s usual compositional personality. Bruckner’s Sixth is also the least frequently performed of the mature symphonies, having characteristics that render it less appealing than the other symphonies to many audiences and conductors. It has the cycle’s strangest Scherzo, which has no recognizable theme at all. It has a unique first-movement tempo indication, Majestoso. Its first complete performance took place only after Bruckner’s death, in 1899 – conducted by Mahler. And that performance used a still-unpublished edition of the work, prepared by Mahler himself, that made significant changes in the sole symphony that Bruckner himself chose not to change.

     As for Mahler’s Sixth, it is the only one of his symphonies regarding which there are two major areas of dispute. One involves the sequence of movements – whether the Scherzo should be performed before or after the Andante moderato. Mahler himself seems to have been ambivalent about this – unusual for so decisive a composer and conductor. Also, the enormous finale is punctuated and tremendously dramatized by three hammer blows that eventually destroy the imagined heroic figure at its center; but Mahler eventually removed the third of them, apparently out of another superstitious fear – in this case, of keeping it in and thus inviting dire consequences into his world. For, strangely, this deeply moving and intense symphony, now usually referred to as the “Tragic,” was written at one of the happiest times of Mahler’s life – and matters were indeed to take a dramatic turn for the worse afterwards.

     Today’s many first-rate Bruckner and Mahler conductors generally do a good job of absorbing the biographical and musicological elements of these symphonies, but keeping them appropriately in the background when presenting the works, allowing the music to speak for itself and tell audiences what the conductors think the composers wanted them to be told. Both Thomas Dausgaard and Tomáš Netopil have clearly studied the scores of the Bruckner and Mahler, respectively, for their new recordings of these symphonies, and have done a fine job of bringing forth the purely musical elements of the works as well as at least some of their underlying emotional terrain. And interestingly, their new recordings of these “middle” symphonies do a fine, if unintended, job of showing just how different the sensibilities of Bruckner and Mahler were at these respective points of their compositional lives.

     Bruckner’s Sixth is built on a far smaller scale than his Fifth, Seventh, Eighth and Ninth, lasting well under an hour – just 53 minutes in Dausgaard’s recording for BIS. Like other Bruckner symphonies, No. 6 does build toward a final-movement climax, but in this case the symphony is more front-weighted, with 32 minutes concentrated in the first two movements. This is scarcely a “slight” symphony, but Dausgaard handles it with more lightness than is usual in performances of Bruckner: this is a lean reading rather than an opulent one, and listeners will seek in vain any grand sense of organ-like sonorities or massively resonant full-orchestra passages. The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra plays Bruckner with a kind of cleanness that it is tempting to associate with the fresh and distinctly chilly Norwegian air – a notion more poetic than realistic, to be sure, but one that gives some sense of the clarity that the orchestra brings to this music and that Dausgaard extracts from it. Indeed, the Bruckner Sixth under Dausgaard has a lighter feeling than Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 of two years later (1883). Dausgaard paces the work quite well, being perhaps a little light in the emotional second movement (marked Sehr feierlich, “very solemnly”) but otherwise presenting the music in a way that brings its exceptional structural clarity to the fore. Wisely, he does not rush the Scherzo (nicht schnell, “not fast”) and also pays close attention to the pacing of the finale (nicht zu schnell, “not too fast”). If there is a certain sense of coldness to this symphony, a lessening of the great warmth and emotional power associated with others by Bruckner, there is in its place a level of thematic and rhythmic clarity that keeps the work, under Dausgaard’s baton, effectively communicative from start to finish.

     Mahler’s Sixth under Netopil, in a two-CD Oehms recording, is a decidedly less thoroughly integrated affair. This is very much a symphony of extremes, from the quiet use of cowbells and the exceptionally beautiful opening of the slow movement to the pervasive march rhythms and high drama of the outer movements and the ever-present sense of barely contained doom overhanging the whole work. Netopil is content to allow the disparate elements of the work’s construction to go their own ways: notably, he makes little attempt to integrate the sprawling first and last movements, so that the strong and highly rhythmic passages seem to come from a work that differs significantly from the one containing the beautifully lyrical material. This results in an episodic performance that involves listeners strongly in one element, only to wrench them into another without much warning or preparation – a legitimate approach to the music, but one that does take some getting used to. Netopil places the Scherzo second – a more-convincing approach than putting it third – and includes all the hammer blows, although he does not give them the otherworldly sound that some conductors use to convey their power to greater effect. On the other hand, Netopil’s opening of the finale is genuinely spine-tingling: the anticipation he produces becomes almost unbearable until the movement is eventually off and running through its dark passages to its eventual dire conclusion. There is no orchestra with a greater claim to this symphony than the Essener Philharmoniker: Mahler conducted the work’s world première in Essen in 1906. So the fact that the orchestra plays the music with sumptuous sound and a firm understanding of Mahler’s thematic and rhythmic demands is scarcely a surprise. What is intriguing here is the way Netopil turns the piece into a series of alleys and byways rather than a broad avenue along which the audience journeys. Neither Netopil’s Mahler Sixth nor Dausgaard’s Bruckner Sixth is a traditional interpretation – and that is all to the good, since both these recordings show just how much remains to be explored in the music of these closely related yet highly dissimilar composers.

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