This review commissioned by and reprinted
here by kind permission of The Bruckner Journal.
It is perhaps no coincidence that the duration of this performance runs to what will seem to many an extreme and etiolated 104 minutes. That would be unprecedented, were it not for the fact that the timings overall and for individual movements match almost exactly those of the recording made by Sergiu Celibidache with the Munich Philharmonic for EMI in 1993. I do not know if Celibidache was in any sense Rémy Ballot’s mentor, but Ballot certainly studied briefly under him in Paris in the 1990s and this recording suggests that he imbibed the precepts of that eccentric maestro.
Comparisons with other recordings are to some degree otiose, insofar as no other recording apart from Celibidache’s begins to approach the leisureliness of this one but the other recordings this most resembles include the two by Karajan, especially the earlier one from 1957, Giulini’s two recordings from 1984 with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic respectively, and Gunter Wand, also with the BPO in 2001. These are all massive, vertical interpretations aspiring to transcendence, as opposed to the fleeter, nimbler versions by such as Tennstedt, Rőgner and even Furtwängler, using his own adaptation of the 1892 Haas edition.
Obviously the edition chosen has an impact on timings, too. Both Ballot and Celibidache employ the 1890 Nowak version yet even the slowest of the other recordings that use this same score is still over a quarter of an hour faster then theirs, while many are as much as half an hour shorter. Even those recordings which use either the most complete Nowak edition of the original 1887 score, or the somewhat longer edition of the 1890 score produced by Robert Haas, or even the elaborated version as recorded by Schaller, do not begin to approach Ballot for expansiveness. Nor is comparison with many excellent historical recordings, such as those by Knappertsbusch, very valid, as they invariably used the revised and heavily cut first performance version of 1892.
If this preamble sounds like a critical caveat to the consumer against trying this recording, I hasten to add that I am merely trying to establish its uniqueness and am in no sense implying that excuses have to be found for Ballot’s tempi - although a predisposition on the part of the listener to tolerate them would be an advantage. Ballot carries off his vision of this symphony triumphantly; the weight and dignity of this monumental account enhance my conviction that it is the greatest Romantic symphony in the canon.
Of the twenty or so different recordings with which I am familiar, five of the best are with the BPO and three with the VPO, suggesting that the presence of a first tier orchestra steeped in Brucknerian tradition is of paramount importance – yet the virtuosity of the Upper Austria Youth Orchestra rides a coach and horses through that notion. Their talent and technical prowess are phenomenal, and there are certainly no more blips or minor flubs than one would expect to hear in any live performance by a first rate professional band. The notes tell us that 130 musicians with an average age of seventeen took part in this performance, although only 96 are named; presumably there were more guest instrumentalists than are credited and they make a magnificent sound. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that despite their prowess, they cannot quite emulate the security of attack or the silky sheen that Karajan’s orchestras achieve, and despite the emphasis conductor Ballot’s places in the notes upon the importance of varying dynamics, nor is their ability to shade them quite so subtly responsive.
This performance took place in the same location almost a year to the day after the Third Symphony was recorded live and subsequently released on Gramola label; I reviewed
it here very favourably. The Ninth will follow later this year and the Sixth in 2016. The resonant acoustic of the Stiftsbasilika favours and even demands slower speeds if the articulation of faster passages is not be obscured by the reverberation. By all accounts, the recording engineers are better able to sift and clarify the sound than human ears listening live can process it; certainly there is no “sonic mush” here to trouble the listener. Inevitably, given the live location, this recording cannot match the transparency Karajan achieves in the studio but the sound remains rich and round, if slightly veiled. Coughing is minimal and there is no recurrence of the hum from the lighting which mildly marred the recording of the Third last year.
In many ways, the sum of this performance is greater than its parts: it clearly greatly impressed those present and remains mightily impressive as a recording per se
and as a memento of what was evidently a great event, even if at individual points other interpreters are more effective – or simply different. Thus in the mighty, brooding opening, Karajan, Giulini and Furtwängler generate more tension, while Tennstedt or Maazel are more urgent and imploring, whereas Ballot tends to slow down marginally before the big moments such as the climaxes to the brass crescendos in order to emphasise and underline their impact. The Totenuhr, too, is especially chilling, dwindling spectrally into nothingness, its graduated dynamic beautifully judged.
Despite its length, there is absolutely no sense of dragging in the Scherzo and indeed some of the additional time is accounted for by Ballot sharing Thielemann’s attachment to making the pauses count, allowing the reverberation to fade and an expectant silence to prevail. The ostinato of falling fifths is superbly articulated. The distension of the Adagio represents the most daring of the risks Ballot takes with this music and but the results are heavenly. It is true that sometimes the young string-players do not “bow through” their phrases sufficiently to emulate the richness of tone their senior counterparts generate and the sustained phrases begin to fade and sag very slightly in comparison with the shaping of Wand or Karajan, but Ballot succeeds magnificently in creating a breathless hush, the descending octaves from the flutes hanging in the dusk like floating flares.
The finale is in many ways the most impressive movement of all. Ballot’s grip on phrasing, his exploitation of pauses and his meticulous care over dynamics results in a wholly satisfying melding of its four, disparate main themes into a coherent cosmic narrative. The din of the clashing cymbals in the final orchestral climax is overwhelming. Whatever your reservations regarding the arguable excesses of Ballot’s concept of this masterwork, this is a recording that every committed Brucknerian should hear.
A couple of pedantic niggles regarding the notes and their translation: Bruckner’s “Faszination für Zahlen” is rendered literally as his “fascination for numbers” when of course the correct preposition should be “with” if the sense intended is not to be reversed to mean that it is the numbers who are fascinated by Bruckner. Secondly, a critic is quoted as presumably favourably describing the Youth Orchestra as “[n]icht irgenwelche ästhetisch kaum erreichbaren Wiener, Berliner oder Münchner Philharmoniker”, which is translated into English as “not some aesthetically unapproachable Vienna, Berlin or Munich Philharmonic”. Apart from the fact that I cannot understand what is meant by the phrase in either language, “aesthetically unapproachable” sounds like a back-handed compliment, as does “scarcely accessible” – unless the sense is “irreproachable”.
In response to this request from the sound engineer John Proffitt:
My second purpose in writing is to ask if you've recently received a review copy of the new Gramola SACD of the Bruckner Symphony 8, recorded in public concert in St Florian, Austria, this past August? I was the recording engineer for this BrucknerTage 2014 performance and am of course keen to see it reviewed. And in that it is a 5-channel surround sound recording, it would be most helpful if it were to be reviewed as such and auditioned in your multichannel listening facility. This SACD is, in fact, the first-ever dedicated multichannel recording to be made in the Basilica Church of St Florian -- Anton Bruckner's "home church" -- and I believe it captures the splendour of the acoustic quite effectively.
Additional comments on the SACD surround recording
This performance is striking for its length as much as anything else. I largely concur with Ralph in his detailed review above, save for my reaction to the Finale
which is, I think, simply too drawn out. To put in a time nearly 40% slower than most (all?) others is a daring move by Rémy Ballot. It tried my patience.
As to the surround recording. Engineer John Proffitt set out to capture the spacious acoustic of the Stiftsbasilika St Florian. In this he has partially succeeded despite a rather muted sound from the rear speakers. My experience of listening to concerts in Salisbury, Winchester, Chichester and St Pauls Cathedrals, and also in Bach's own St Thomas' in Leipzig, is that the resonance from behind is very noticeable even when one is fairly close to the orchestra. Here the sound is still primarily from the front with the acoustic mostly audible only during pauses, not much during the music. A production decision sounds to have been taken to keep the microphones well back to aid the feeling of space. This has had the effect of muddying the details. Even the mighty timpani strokes at the start of the Finale
are indistinct. Orchestral detail throughout suffers from this same characteristic. This is the sort of wash of sound which might be impressive at times but which loses so much that many of Bruckner's wonderful orchestral details go missing.
For an example of a surround Bruckner 8 that really works go to the Concertgebouw and Jansons on RCO Live RCO05003 where the famous Concertgebouw acoustic places a clean and detailed recording in a space without musical loss. Another odd thing about the Gramola sound is the scrapiness (to rhyme with 'tape' not 'tap', I am not being rude about these excellent players) of the violins. I suspect multiple microphones, some of them close in, are aiding this.
It sounds as if I am dismissing this pair of discs, I am not, but they are a useful extra performance of this much recorded symphony, not one for the uninitiated Brucknerian.
Individual Movement Timings
Allegro moderato [19:30]
Scherzo. Allegro moderato. Trio. Langsam [17:47]
Adagio. Feierlich langsam; doch nicht schleppend [33:37]
Finale. Feierlich, nicht schnell [32:52]