Bruckner's sixth symphony has a quirky distinctive personality. The off-beat and kinky scherzo in particular is especially memorable, capturing Bruckner's eccentric originality to perfection. Conducting the work as a whole requires a slightly laid back personality - when the work is forced it seems to blow up on a conductor, losing it's charm and distinctiveness. Having said this I have to admit that two of my favorite performances were by pretty serious approaches by pretty monumental leaders, Klemperer and Furtwangler - this latter not a complete performance. However, mere mortals trying to have a go at this work rarely manage to pull off the heaven-storming approach of those two baton legends.
This recording happily avoids trying to overdo things. The balances are quite delightful, and the work's charming disposition is allowed to emerge - in many ways this is the sunniest of Bruckner's symphonies, or at least the most ingratiating. Again, I've never understood the need some critics have for apologies for this work.
Setting aside the classic Klemperer among available recordings, the tops among those available is Stein's serious and brilliantly played and recorded way with the Vienna. Truth to tell, I find this performance almost too much of a good thing: it is very forceful and can be a tad overwhelming. Although many find the Stein CD very sensitive and lyrical I tend to disagree a wee bit - the Vienna Philharmonic may be resplendent, but it hammers forth at times on those forte passages like the Dies Irae from the Verdi Requiem. (Of course many Bruckner enthusiasts live for just such blasts.) Personally I find it yet another sign that we are still learning how to approach this symphony among a very complicated and at times contradictory body of work. The Bruckner sixth symphony certainly allows for considerable diversity in approach, and performances such as this one under Sawallisch do a fine job in bringing out many of the work's often submerged charms and attractions.