The Sixth is a particular favorite of mine, perhaps dating from my conversion to Bruckner's music in 1951 while reading Donald Francis Tovey's two splendid essays on the Fourth and on the Sixth. As with the Fourth, the first publication of the Sixth contains detailed tempo indications not present in the manuscript. This edition was prepared by Cyrill Hynais before Bruckner's death, though it was not published until 1899 after Joseph Schalk had made many more contributions. The tempo indications are rather more modest in number than in the Fourth. The most important ones are those for the first, second, and third themes: Maestoso, Bedeutend langsamer, and Gemässigtes Hauptzeitmaß, etwas breit. The first word means "grandly" but a moderately quick (allegro) tempo is implied by the nature of the music. The second theme is to be played "significantly more slowly", the third at a tempo slightly slower than the beginning and rather broadly". Although the first two indications are present in the Collected Edition publications as edited by both Haas and Nowak, the designation indicating that the third theme is to return nearly to the opening tempo is missing. Yet following that instruction is essential in bringing to life the form of the movement.
We do not have many early recordings of the Sixth, but in my own library I have two scores that offer some early information. One is a copy of the Universal-Edition printing of the Hynais score of 1899, which at one time belonged to Kapellmeister Heinz Norfolk in Vienna, and at another time to Heinrich Huber, probably also in Vienna, and in it someone entered time indications every 15 seconds from the beginning of the first-movement recapitulation to the movement's end. These time indications must have been taken down during a performance. My friend Mark Kluge checked the published records of the Vienna Philharmonic, and found that there was a broadcast of the Sixth conducted by Franz Schalk in 1927. Now a broadcast, heard in a brightly illuminated home, would provide a much better opportunity to make such notations than a dimly-lit concert hall. It would be fascinating if these notations were in fact relics of that Schalk performance! Certainly they do come from a quite early event, and they correspond to no recording of the Sixth of which there is any record. They conclusively indicate a sharply faster third theme.
Reconstruction of the movement from the Norfolk tempos, making reasonable assumptions for the development and calculating the exposition to be just like the recapitulation (allowing for different length of theme groups) gives a time of 14'23" for the whole movement. In discussions with me, Benjamin Korstvedt has insisted that the underlying logic connecting the tempos of the A and B themes is that the quarter note be maintained steadily, that is, the ordinary quarter note of the A theme is equal in duration to the triplet quarter note of the B theme. This concept is borne out adequately well by the pencil indications present in the Norfolk Hynais score, where A = 72 and B = 50. Later, we will use it as the cornerstone in our attempts to reconstruct movement durations simply from a postulated initial tempo.
The other score is a copy of the Haas score signed on the first page of music by none other than Paul Hindemith in 1952 at Linz, when he conducted the Sixth there. On the facing page someone kept a record of the movement timings for both the performance and the rehearsal, and these timings reflect an extremely rapid reading. Indeed, in the score Hindemith encircled the word Majestoso on the score, and wrote next to it “12 Minuten einsparen”, in other words, “Can you spare 12 minutes?” (really, “save 12 minutes”).
Now, he did not quite attain a speed which could result in a duration of only 12 minutes. Instead, the timing of the first movement was 13'0" in the rehearsal, 12'45" in the concert. Still, we may conjecturally reconstruct the tempos he used, in the following way: Assume a tempo at the start, 58, or 66, or even 72 (!). Then the B theme is at 2/3 of the initial tempo, the C theme is at a moderated 11/12 of the initial tempo, and the codetta is at 10/12 of the initial tempo. Then the development begins at the codetta speed, and continues at the C-theme speed (at the A minor place), attaining the A-theme speed at m. 195. Actually the C-theme tempo is reestablished at m. 175, the C major place. Incidentally, the Norfolk conductor didn't seem to accelerate here much, though. Anyway, whole-movement durations depend on the initial tempo in this way:
Initial tempo 72, movement length 12'28"
Initial tempo 70.4, movement length 12'45"
Initial tempo 69.1, movement length 13'0"
These leave room for plenty of rubato, and a really big ritard at the end. As for the individual tempos Hindemith used, putting in 50 for the B theme, and also adjusting the ratio at measure 147 to be 25/36, means the following:
The Hindemith score provides a number of interesting insights. First, some industrious character was interested enough in this symphony to time his performances, and get his autograph. Secondly, this same person compiled a list of errata, some of which apply to the score and were corrected by Nowak. This was either before or after the appearance of the Nowak score in 1953. Perhaps it was before, because (a) the Hindemith performance was in 1952, and (b) it would only have mattered to historians what errors lay in the Haas materials after the appearance of the Nowak edition, not to practical musicians.
But most important to me is the expectation that Hindemith seems to have had, to conduct the movement in 12 minutes, i.e. in a time compatible with the tempos of 72, 50,  suggested in the manuscript Hynais score, but never entered into the published score. Now, Hindemith was a very rigorous person, and he certainly had an industrious and analytic mind of his own besides having been in his youth quite a rebel. But he was also deeply dedicated to the opportunities of performance. However, I submit that he never could have proceeded from the Hynais tempos to a movement length of 12 minutes by calculation, as I have done. It would simply require too much work with the tools then available (slide rule at best). Maybe one could say, 48 plus 50 measures at 72, 52 plus 8 plus 40 measures at 50, and the rest, 171, at 66; this would be 98/36 plus 200/50 plus 171/33 equals 2.72 plus 4.00 plus 5.18 equals 11.90 minutes, actually 11.904 by the calculator. Perhaps it could have been done. But would he have trusted it to be proper to assign all of both third theme groups, most of the development, and all the coda to 66? If one breaks it down much farther, the ability to do the calculations belongs to a scientist, not a musician of even Hindemith=s capabilities, I would think. (The reason the time is not longer is that most of the material assigned to 66 would be played no faster, and likely slower than that.)
Hindemith is much more likely to have gotten 12 minutes as an ideal from experience, not calculation. And this experience is quite probably connected with a tradition of playing the piece fast enough so that Hynais=s tempos, and a movement length of 12 minutes, are not ridiculously unattainable. In this way we obtain a look into the past, just as we had with the Fourth where there were many more early recordings (for the complete Sixth we have only Georg Ludwig Jochum and Volkmar Andreae before 1950, a sad fact). So Botstein was wrong when he suggested that the Nazis always slowed Bruckner down, but he most definitely was right when he said that much of Bruckner used to be played quite a bit faster than it is today.
Recordings that have third themes at a tempo comparable to that of the first theme include those of G.L. Jochum (1944), Swoboda (1950), Swarowsky (1960), Kubelík (1971 and 1981), Sawallisch (1981), Dohnányi (1991), and Barenboim (1994). The Barenboim has been extravagantly praised, but I think the Dohnányi is even better, with a distinctively faster third theme in a very bright and elegant performance. The Sawallisch has usually gotten bad reviews, based on the confused ambience and a certain rough-hewn quality to the playing; but I enjoy it for its good overall organization. Answering an internet request I made for specific comparisons, David Lampson wrote to me that “Sawallisch’s reading of the first movement is energeticCfull of intensity and passion. Even with the brisker tempo, the introduction of the theme brings a dark, almost mystical feel to the music. Klemperer's approach is entirely different. With a more relaxed tempo, the deliberate rhythmic pulse that opens the movement evokes majesty, while the treatment of the thematic material brings to mind the romantic notion of the grandeur of nature. At times pastoral, at others dynamic, Klemperer's vision is wide open and un-mysterious.” The Klemperer recording to which he refers is the EMI from 1964, where the performance starts very slowly, continues with one of the faster second themes, and barely speeds up at all for the lumbering, heavy third theme. As for the ending of the movement, Lampson says: “Sawallisch’s is a nearly violent climax, a resolution to all the energy that has been building in the movement. Klemperer's is noble and magnificent.”
A totally different reaction is offered by David Griegel: “I listened to the Dohnányi again the other night in order to refresh my memory, and the most impressive thing is how well it’s played. The Cleveland Orchestra seems unmatched for precision, and the balance between winds and strings sounds pretty much ideal. (The brass isn’t allowed to get punchy in the first movement, for example.) But Dohnányi’s interpretation of the Sixth is pretty ordinary, quite unlike his incredible, exciting interpretation of the Ninth. I don't particularly like Dohnányi’s tempos; they seem too fast to me. I like a slower approach to the Sixth, one that brings it into the same sound world as the Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth. For that reason, my two favorite recordings are Celibidache/Munich Philharmonic Orchestra/Sony 48348 (VHS) and Eichhorn/Bruckner Orchester Linz/Camerata 345 (CD). I think I like the Celi best. The Adagio is very slow, but this makes it sound more like the Adagios of the later symphonies. The center of gravity of the entire symphony is thus shifted to the Adagio.” Finally, Benjamin Korstvedt had this to say: “I sat down and listened to the Cleveland/Dohnányi recording of the Sixth. It is truly remarkable. At first it struck me as a bit dull, but soon the marvellous clarity of the texture became apparent. Dohnányi really balances the orchestra very well, they play extremely well (markedly better and much more cleanly than the BPO for Barenboim), and the attention to detail and inner voices is great. Chamber music Bruckner. ...For really taking the score apart and putting back together they do well indeed. I can't imagine that Sawallisch and the Bavarians do quite the same thing.”
I know all these people and respect their opinions, but my opinion is closest to the last. For me the structural issue alone makes the Dohnányi greatly superior, although the precision and elegance of the playing of the Cleveland, on which all agree, do no harm. From the structural standpoint the Dohnányi is equalled only by the glorious Kubelík performances, with the Bavarian State Orchestra on Originals, the Chicago Symphony on their own label, and the Cleveland Orchestra (a radio performance of which some people have tapes). The issue here is not one of creeping slowness, but instead whether the third theme is to be fast. And certain conductors make it so, with no other indication of familiarity with the oft-derogated but immensely valuable Hynais score. Perhaps the criterion being applied is that of a consistent beat, in which the quarter note is uniform throughout the movement. This would require the tempo to change from a beginning tempo of 60 (say) to a tempo of 40 for the second theme group, returning to 60 (or perhaps 56) for the third theme. It is curious that the printer's score of the Hynais edition includes a pencil-scrawled 72 for the first theme, and 50 for the second theme! Some other performances that do not get much faster at the third theme still make enough of a difference there for a new world to be created. One of these is Georg Tintner's recording with a Moravian orchestraCan interesting performance that bodes well for the huge forthcoming Naxos series.