Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor (version 1896, ed. Nowak 1951)
Altomonte Orchester St. Florian/Rémy Ballot
rec. live, 21 August 2015, Brucknertage 2015, St. Florian, Stiftsbasilika, St. Florian, Upper Austria.
Symphony No. 9 in D minor (for two pianos)
Matthias Giesen (piano – Blüthner)
Klaus Laczika (piano – Yamaha)
rec. live, 15 August 2006, Brucknertage 2006, Kaiserzimmer, Stift St Florian, Upper Austria
SACD + DDD, reviewed in surround
GRAMOLA 99089 SACD [77:02 + 65:50]

The sound of Bruckner in a cathedral should epitomise how history has painted him: a composer shouting praise to God through his music. Then again, if Bruckner symphonies are their own “cathedrals of sound”, a divine acoustic is perhaps superfluous. This isn’t meant flippantly; the practical reality of performing large and complex works in highly reverberant surroundings can place limitations on tempo and dynamics if clarity and impact are not to suffer. The reverberation time of the Stiftsbasilika, St. Florian, where Rémy Ballot’s Bruckner Ninth was recorded, is given as between six and ten seconds, presumably dependent on where it is measured. Does this account for Ballot’s 77-minute performance?

Two examples suggest not: a Bruckner Ninth I have of Bernhard Klee with the BBC Philharmonic in the truly cavernous Liverpool Cathedral takes a full 10 minutes less than Ballot’s, without losing the acoustic battle; and Franz Welser-Möst’s live Bruckner Fifth with the Cleveland Orchestra in the Stiftsbasilika, St. Florian, is on the swifter end of six other recordings I compared it with. The latter recording, by the way, is on a EuroArts DVD which also provides a surround-sound picture of the venue, to which I will refer later.

Ballot’s interpretation is perhaps best explained by his early tutelage under Sergiù Celibidache, whose approach, as encapsulated by his son Serge Ioan Celibidache, was "the more notes … the more time needed for them to develop and to be 'digested' acoustically. Thus, the richer the music, the slower the tempo." If indeed Ballot is channelling Celibidache, the New York Times’ John Rockwell had this to say on the latter’s Bruckner: “at these tempos the music loses its structural coherence and its inner life. Mystical revelation is all well and good; it is the stuff of which these symphonies are made. But a certain order and momentum are also needed, a foil for expressivity and a sense that the music is sweeping toward a climax or an epiphany.”

Majestic as it is, I do find Ballot’s approach perversely slow, verging on self-indulgence. Fellow MusicWeb International reviewer Ralph Moore has also commented on this performance here, and on Ballot’s previous recordings of Bruckner’s Third and Eighth Symphonies. In his and other opinions I’ve encountered, the length of Ballot’s interpretation for each symphony has been central to its consideration. I’m inclined to be less tolerant on this aspect, noting that other interpreters have played the “long game” with greater success. Of those, Carlo Maria Giulini stands out; his VPO Ninth has a pulse, purpose and trajectory that emphatically tell the listener where the music is going. Even so, he’s still 8 minutes shy of Ballot.

There’s a kind of perpetual stasis that strikes me about Ballot’s performance. The moments of grandeur come and go, but more as episodic effects without context. The Stiftsbasilika acoustic helps him out by joining the episodes together and providing some sense of momentum. Perchance that is Ballot’s grand design. Enlightenment is not aided by the florid and confusing booklet notes, a product I guess of literal translation from the original German. Ballot himself makes a contribution which I find laden with metaphysics and supposition about Bruckner and his work. As one who would prefer the music to say it all, I’m reminded of an interview I once read between a Wagner-loving critic and a famous conductor who had just completed the Ring, where every probing question about inner meaning was greeted with the same response: “I just conduct the notes in front of me”. Good advice all round, perhaps.

I listened to this recording in surround sound, and compared it with the above-mentioned EuroArts DVD. I eventually decided preference should rest on individual taste. The Gramola sound is very rich, some might say resplendent; the Stiftsbasilika acoustic is omnipresent, almost to the point of dominance. I felt like an observer in the building, but not quite sure where. The EuroArts sound is a much more direct presentation of the orchestra, with the ample reverberation still in evidence, but more as a backdrop. I felt more involved and part of the audience. With the Gramola sound, once the novelty and “wow” factors had worn off, I just wanted to shed the acoustic blanket and get back in touch with the music. That, however, might have disrobed the Emperor.

Concerning the bonus disc of the two-piano arrangement of Bruckner’s Ninth, I have nothing to add to Ralph Moore’s appraisal of its excellence. I would remark, however, that my additional review of these discs was predicated on a surround-sound evaluation. I find it curious therefore that the performance here is from the Brucknertage 2006, as a conventional CD, when the recording engineer for the Ballot performance, John Proffitt, also recorded the two-piano arrangement at the Brucknertage 2015 in 4.0 surround sound, and that recording has been released by High Definition Tape Transfers (review). Such are the weird and wonderful ways of the music industry.

For all that I appear to be negative about Rémy Ballot’s Bruckner Ninth, it is a response perhaps to the extremes of both the performance and the recorded sound. To me it is not a first choice, or an only choice, but it does provide a view of the work that should be heard. Together with the fine playing of the Altomonte Orchester St. Florian and the grandness of its setting, it may fulfill many a vision of Bruckner heaven.

Des Hutchinson

Previous review: Ralph Moore

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