Symphony No. 6
BBC Philharmonic/Juanjo Mena
Chandos CHAN 20221 59:50 mins
No 19th-century symphonic composer after Beethoven could write slow movements that matched the profundity and deeply affecting nature of Bruckner’s, and the Adagio of his Sixth Symphony forms the highlight of what remains an intermittently problematic work. Bruckner wanted the Adagio played ‘very solemnly’, and Juanjo Mena, the BBC Philharmonic’s former chief conductor, can hardly be accused of failing to respond. He draws out its closing pages, in particular, into a lingering valedictory coda. No other conductor in my experience has taken the piece quite so slowly, but the music can certainly stand it. On the other hand, Mena is a touch impatient in the Scherzo, which Bruckner, mindful of the music’s intricate rhythms, marks ‘Nicht schnell’ – ‘Not fast’.
The Sixth Symphony’s magical beginning has the violins giving out a delicate, tripping rhythm on one note, joined a couple of bars later by the cellos and basses far below, playing a broad theme in the minor. Here, the violins are so quiet as to be on the edge of audibility. It’s true that the marking is pp, but the rhythm needs to establish itself before the lower strings come in; and in any case Bruckner reduces the dynamic level still further, to ppp, a couple of pages later, where the violins’ rhythm accompanies a lone clarinet. But Mena’s tempos in the outer movements are spot on, and the BBC Philharmonic provides glowing playing throughout, so that the performance as a whole leaves a strong and positive impression.