Clive James once wrote that the average Bruckner symphony was as long as the flight from London to Singapore. Certainly that might be the case with the 5th, 7th, and 8th but not the 6th.
This relatively short piece (for Bruckner, at any rate) was also untypical in other ways also – although there is the usual distinction made between the Haas and Nowak editions (it is the Haas edition that is the most often performed), Bruckner was content and confident enough not to revise the 6th at all. For a Bruckner novice or one not so familiar with his works, the challenge lies in how the musical journey is set out and played out. Hearing the 6th for the first time, one is struck with how untypically bombastic it is (save perhaps for the 3rd movement). Instead, there appears to be more of an emphasis on developing themes.
How interesting then the reaction of the contemporary critics was unfavourable – Eduard Hanslick, the doyen of the Viennese muscial establishment really had it in for Bruckner, declaring that he could not understand the symphony nor could he grasp the musical coherence within it. Perhaps in a sense he was right – there is no clear structure, but there are clear thematic ideas throughout. But the lack of predictability and the contrastive natures of the various themes combined with a huge thematic palette is precisely what sets Bruckner apart from the rest. Huge climaxes give way to pauses and silence. So, while Hanslick was right about Brahms and was completely right to support him, Brahms himself could not have written music to the scale, heights and depth that Bruckner did from the 3rd Symphony on. And surely that is the reason why Bruckner must be regarded as one of the great symphonists not only of the Romantic period, but of all time.
For the 6th, my ‘control’ recording is the New Philharmonia under Klemperer (EMI). Although the Philharmonia is superior to the NZSO (unfortunately, there are some minor glitches here and there), under Tintner’s clear direction, the NZSO deliver a solid and well-thought through performance. And being a Naxos release, it makes for a bargain priced addition to the collection. Recommended.