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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major (1878 Version Ed. Nowak) [89:29]
Altomonte Orchestra Saint Florian/Rémy Ballot
rec. live 18 August 2017, Bruckner Tage, St. Florian, Stiftsbasilika, St. Florian, Upper Austria.
GRAMOLA 99162 SACD [61:29 + 28:00]

This is the fifth in the series of live recordings of Bruckner symphonies conducted in St Florian by Rémy Ballot; those familiar with the previous four will know what to expect: very broad phrasing and slow tempi, which some hear as massively grand and imposing, others as flaccid and etiolated, recorded in the big, reverberant acoustic of the Stiftsbasilika.

I belong firmly in the first camp and thoroughly relish the care with which Ballot shapes the music and moulds the dynamics here, integrating the performance into a one, massive entity. The additional duration of the recording, extending over two CDs, is mostly accounted for by the particularly long Adagio and Scherzo, both of which are several minutes slower than any other version, and the generous pauses between movements. The tension and atmosphere of a live recording are faithfully caught; so too, unfortunately is the coughing in the quiet opening and occasionally at other ill-timed moments throughout. There is, however, nothing slack or ponderous about Ballot’s management of the introduction and ensuing development; indeed, his grip on proceedings is thrilling, and the music unfolds with untroubled assurance from the slow tread of the stately, serene opening theme through the noble brass fanfare to the brisk Allegro, the meditative second theme and the mighty insistence of the third subject, in which Ballot eschews heavy-handedness by emphasising its cumulative momentum rather than going for incidental drama.

This symphony – a rare and welcome triumph at a time when Bruckner’s spirits were at their lowest ebb - has variously been given the sobriquets "Medieval", "Catholic" and "Church of Faith" in addition to more prosaic nicknames like "Pizzicato". In his approach to the work, Ballot picks up on the vertical nature of Bruckner’s inspiration implied by the first three nicknames and emulates that of another great modern Brucknerian, Gerd Schaller, by conferring a hieratic dignity on proceedings. The Adagio is sublimely beautiful, bathed in an intense golden glow of sound and maintaining a stately pace. Solo woodwind playing is especially praiseworthy throughout and adds substantially to the ethereal nature of the music. I note that Ballot does not opt for the variant indicated in the revised Nowak edition of the flute taking the repeated high A’s at the conclusion of the movement; instead, we faintly hear the basilica bell chiming four o’clock which, far from being an annoyance, simply lends greater immediacy to the live-concert ambience.

The Scherzo is weighty but urgent with plenty of swing and drive, so the longer duration becomes an on-paper irrelevance, as it emerges as released and rumbustious, just as it should. There is a real air of mystery to the quirky opening to the Finale, with its cheeky but mellow interjections from the clarinet; then the music catches fire, gathering pace and galloping inexorably towards the monumental chorale, but for its first appearances Ballot pulls back and adopts daringly slow tempi, giving himself latitude to build and build from eleven minutes into the movement through the march-theme up to the blazing brass peroration, then he pulls back again to launch the triumphant double fugue; it is like watching huge pieces of machinery float into position then interlock; mesmerising. The final seven minutes are stupendous, like riding a tiger, culminating in the concluding paean sounded over thundering timpani; simply from an engineering, let alone a musical, point of view, this a triumph, especially given the challenges of the recording environment, so kudos to both the performers and the sound engineers, headed by producer John Proffitt. Applause starts even before the last echoes have died away but that no doubt indicates the appreciation of those lucky enough to have been in the audience for this mighty performance.

This is not the lean, propulsive Bruckner of Rögner, Welser-Möst, Harnoncourt or Sawallisch but closer in mood to Karajan, Giulini and Thielemann. It is neatly presented on two CDs in a folding cardboard wallet with excellent notes from Klaus Laczika

Ralph Moore



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