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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
String Quintet in F major, WAB 1143 (1879) [52:54]
Quartet in C minor, WAB 111 (1862-3) [26:37]
Altomonte Ensemble
rec. 24-26 October 2020, Hall of the Symphonic Orchestra, Amstetten, Austria
GRAMOLA 99241 [79:35]

On first glancing at this new recording from Remy Ballot’s Altomonte Ensemble, I thought there must have been a mistake in the overall timing of 79:35 for the quintet and quartet combined, as the previous recording of the same chamber works from the Fitzwilliam Quartet on Linn provides as a bonus the ten-minute Intermezzo discarded from the quintet, yet at 76:33 is only three minutes shorter than this Gramola issue. A closer look at the timings of individual movements, as per the table below, explained the apparent anomaly.

  Quintet Quartet
  Altamonte Fitzwilliam Altamonte Fitzwilliam
I 14:14 13:28 11:20 8:22
II 10:06 7:59 7:23 5:56
III 18:08 13:20 3:19 3:29
IV 10:26 9:56 4:35 4:19
  52:54 44:55 26:37 22:06

The Altomonte take a full eight minutes longer over the quintet and not far off five minutes longer in the quartet and those are big differences in comparatively short works. The biggest discrepancies are in the Adagio of the quintet and the opening Allegro moderato of the quartet. Admittedly, the weasel-word “moderato” has always provided scope for disagreement and how slow is “Adagio” in any case? What matters is that the works should cohere and convince; consulting a metronome hardly helps.

I was, in any case, evidently very satisfied with the Fitzwilliam’s recording as in my review I nominated it as Recording of the Month back in October 2015. Interestingly, my reference recording for comparison with the Fitzwilliam’s account of the quintet was that by the Raphael Ensemble, who took even less time over it at 42:32. This new recording, slow tempi and all, would have had to be very convincing indeed to rival them, but as the natural successor to Celibidache, who clearly influenced him, Remy Ballot has waged a successful campaign to restore to Bruckner’s music the slower tempi which he believes the composer desired. He has put that creed into practice in live performances at St Florian, and the recordings of seven of the symphonies so far have in general been very well received – if not by all. My reviews of them have all been enthusiastic, promulgating the opinion that even if you don’t appreciate Ballot’s interpretative choices, you might still concede that he has some new and stimulating to say about how they should be played and heard.

All of which serves as preamble to the question of whether the slow speeds here work. These are very different pieces: one the product of mature composer with five symphonies under his belt and the other a student work.

There is certainly nothing objectionable or even controversial about the Altomonte’s execution of the first movement of the quintet, which is decidedly Gemäßigt (moderate). They are closely recorded but there is little of the extraneous huffing, puffing and scraping which annoys some listeners when the miking is too immediate. They make a big, warm, open sound like the Fitzwilliams and, again like them, vibrato is very sparingly applied. The balance amongst the instruments is ideal. The Brahmsian elements of the music are brought to the fore; this is very stern, “masculine” music tempered by the sweetness of the descending main subject.

The Scherzo is taken at a more deliberate pace than the skipping tempo of the Fitzwilliam, lending it a more rustic feeling, perhaps robbing it a little of its insouciance and bringing out instead the strangeness and modernity of the harmonies such as in the quiet, slow development beginning at 0:53 and extending to 2:51 before the more jocular Trio. However, it is in the Adagio where we encounter the most extreme prolongation, lending the music a mesmeric, otherworldly quality reminiscent of the Heiliger Dankgesang of Beethoven’s Op 132 – and for me, it works, as do Ballot’s etiolated accounts of symphonic slow movements. The Altomonte Ensemble build the Adagio so meticulously in terms of dynamics and intensity over such a long arc of time, that comparison with the augmented Fitzwilliam Quartet’s account makes it sound as if they had decided to revert to Bruckner’s original marking of Andante - but I find both versions equally satisfying in their own way. The finale is more conventionally paced and the Ländler theme of the first viola is brought out strongly and there is always plenty of weight in the combined sound of the three lower instruments; the swift little coda is strikingly dramatic.

I remarked of the quartet in my previous review that “[t]here is nothing amateur or tentative about that composition; it is dramatic, lyrical and passionate” although it must be conceded that there is nothing much which is identifiably Brucknerian about the sound-world it inhabits; if anything, it sounds Haydnesque. The Altomonte’s slower speeds in the first two movements do nothing to diminish the chances of the listener recognising that element of imitation, if not pastiche, but the serene, “classical” nature of the first movement and the stately dignity of the Andante emerge intact. The spritely Scherzo and lively finale are similarly derivative but equally delightful, even if, again, they are hardly recognisable as Bruckner.

The Linn recording has the advantage of offering the Intermezzo and more orthodox speeds, whereas the Altomonte Ensemble’s slower speeds mean that there was no room for any such bonus, I think, however, that the dedicated Brucknerian will want to hear this new account, too, if only to assess the validity of their approach and enjoy some of Bruckner’s most beautiful music in a different guise.

Ralph Moore

Remy Ballot, Iris Schutzenberger (violins); Stefanie Kropfreiter, Peter Aigner* (violas); Jorgen Fog (cello)

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