Bruckner’s Sixth is one of his most genial symphonies and might be considered to inhabit a world not too distant from the symphonies of Schubert, Dvořák and even Beethoven’s Pastoral. Not only are its many melodies immediately appealing, but it is also, in the words of the composer, his “cheekiest” (“die Kechste”). If one thinks of Bruckner as the composer of massive, monumental works with awe-inspiring spiritual aspirations, the idea that he composed a “cheeky” symphony will come as quite a surprise.

Ebrach Abbey © Stefan Schmäling
Ebrach Abbey
© Stefan Schmäling

The Philharmonie Festiva’s performance under the direction of Gerd Schaller, following just six weeks after their performance of the Fifth, began with lively determination; the little triplet-duplet, Morse-code-like rhythm on violins was precisely articulated and the cellos’ and double basses’ presentation of the Maestoso main theme had a propulsive energy to set the movement energetically on its way. So it was remarkable how naturally the transition to the lyrical second theme was handled – not even a hint of a lumpy gear change, the tempo perfectly judged. In the accelerando that builds up to the great climax of the development many conductors make an exciting crescendo, but Bruckner’s score calls for something even more dramatic: the accelerando is quiet throughout, has no crescendo, so that the full orchestra, fortissimo, bursts in like an explosion sweeping all before it. In this performance at this passage Maestro Schaller actually effected a diminuendo to pianissimo, so increasing the tension and dramatic effect of the climax when it came. The coda to the first movement is a thing of wonder; composer Robert Simpson described it thus: “The main theme rises and falls like some great ship, the water illuminated in superb hues as the sun rises, at last bursting clear in the sky.” Schaller exerted meticulous control of the varying stepped dynamics to bring the movement to its glorious close.

Bruckner is justly famed for his Adagios, and they are all wonderfully moving, but that in the Sixth Symphony is very special. Although it features a sorrowful, keening oboe melody and includes a short funeral march passage with quiet drum beats, its prevailing atmosphere is of tender, humane emotion, a characteristic caught well by the orchestra under Schaller’s direction. The tragic element was perhaps bit underplayed, neither the oboe at the start nor the horns at the climax bringing out the full sorrow of their theme, but the temptation to dwell too lovingly on the final section was resisted, and the extraordinary descent by the violins of a scale over three octaves was played in tempo and not drawn out molto espressivo as some interpreters are wont to do.

Although I was seated quite near the front, the Scherzo, a weird and fantastic creation, suffered somewhat from the reverberant acoustic. In conversation with a member of the audience who had sat very near the front, I gather that the music was crisply played, though by the time it got to me the firm tread of the cellos and double-basses boomed and merged one note into another. No doubt the countless microphones of Bavarian Radio will clarify it all in their recording of the event. But the horns in the Trio, their “Eroica” fanfares, were all the more splendid for the generous echo of the acoustic!

One thing that marks out performances of this work is how successfully the finale is negotiated. Even such an undoubted Brucknerian as conductor Georg Tintner had his doubts about the movement: he wrote, “So in the Sixth Symphony we have three perfect movements and one that is somewhat problematical – at least to me.” It was Schaller’s great achievement in this performance to negotiate a path through the abundance of contrasted motives whilst always maintaining a sense of direction. There is a jaunty little motif in the third theme group, derived from the tragic oboe melody of the Adagio, and a source of embarrassment to Tintner – “the more often it appears... the more banal it becomes” – but I love the way it smiles and becomes one of the key elements in the transformation of the movement from its rather severe opening material and stormy episodes towards the optimistic triumph by which it is suddenly blessed at the end. There seemed nothing problematical in Schaller’s presentation of the music and the closing bars were as effectively delivered as I have heard, the sudden return to the tonic major avoiding entirely the sense of an arbitrary ill-prepared event that it can sometimes have. It was as though something very clear and natural that had been behind the music since the beginning finally burst into the foreground.

This fine performance completes the Philharmonie Festiva’s Bruckner cycle, performed in the context of the Ebrach Summer of Music (Ebracher Musiksommer). It has been an extraordinary and very valuable achievement, often exploring unusual and in some cases unperformed variants of the symphonies, many in editions by Professor William Carragan, and played them all to the highest standards (the core of the orchestra is formed by musicians from the major ensembles of Munich). Behind it all stands the figure of conductor Gerd Schaller, who founded the Philharmonie Festiva in 2008, and is the driving force of this unique festival in the village of Ebrach in Upper Franconia.