Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No.6 in A major (1881 version, ed. Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs, 2015)
Oberösterreichisches Jugendsinfonieorchester/Rémy Ballot
rec. Stiftsbasilika St.Florian, Upper Austria, August 19, 2016
Reviewed in Surround 5.0
GRAMOLA 99127 SACD [69.10]
Bruckner's 6th is oddly neglected compared to the other late masterworks but it never fails to make an impact. It was one of the first Bruckner symphonies I purchased on LP many decades ago. That performance, with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Joseph Keilbert, was purchased because, when it came out, in mono, in Summer 1964, it was grudgingly described by EMG's Monthly Letter as, "better than previous recordings". They still went on to complain that the Adagio was "unceremoniously bundled out of the way". Until Klemperer's famous recording arrived the following year there were no other easily obtained alternatives. Klemperer was reviewed in October 1965 along with the stereo version of Keilbert. Given Klemperer's - often unjust - reputation for taking things slowly, they also remarked that he, "takes the wonderful Adagio much too quickly", and continued to recommend both in their annual Art of Record Buying. Jumping to 1971 we get to Haitink on Philips with his Concertgebouw Orchestra. And what do you know, "it is a sad disappointment to find him, like everyone else, rushing through this work, robbing it of its true grandeur". Grudgingly, and despite the "barbarous" turnover in the middle of the slow movement, they conclude that Haitink is "preferable to the others". Their parting comment, reflecting their belief that it was a commercial decision to force this work onto one disc instead of the three-sides it obviously needed, is wonderfully apt for this new Gramola issue and I quote two whole sentences. "In the circumstances it is probably a forlorn hope ever to expect a properly paced commercial recording of Bruckner's sixth symphony. Such are the paradoxical disadvantages of 'long-playing' records!" The always anonymous review team at EMG, which included one Robert Simpson, disbanded in 1985, and never did give a top recommendation to a Bruckner 6 recording so far as I can work out. The Penguin Guide too remained diffident about the recorded legacy.
So maybe the world has been waiting for Rémy Ballot. He gained considerable publicity when he conducted Bruckner's 8th Symphony with these forces and in this venue. That performance was very slow indeed and it was with that in mind I approached this recording: would he get it right? He takes a little over 68 minutes for the symphony, applause extending the disc by another minute. Referring to the
Bruckner website, the home of all performance statistics, it seems Ballot has again directed the longest. (There is a reference there to Theilemann taking 73 minutes but his disc says 63 minutes on the cover). I believe Ballot was influenced by Sergiu Celibidache, in which case it is no surprise to see he too exceeds the hour by a few minutes and indeed takes even longer over the Adagio. For the record the norm is around 55-59 minutes for the whole symphony and 15 to 19 minutes for the Adagio. Does this one sound long and slow? Yes it does. However, it should be noted that the great Brucknerian and composer, Robert Simpson (see above, who incidentally preferred the 1935 Haas edition), said of the second movement: "It is often played too fast; it will both withstand and reward the slowest playing that artistry, technique, and courage can afford." (The Essence of Bruckner, p.130). The OÖJSO, as I believe they can be called, are a very fine orchestra of young musicians with a conductor who has a definite vision of matters Brucknerian, so there are no issues on any of those fronts. Without the length limitations of the old LP side, and with the advantages of hi-res surround sound, this undoubtedly makes an impact. However, I feel the energy is rather diminished especially in the outer movements. I was impressed by this disc but not aroused to enthusiasm. That said I am happy to have it as part of my collection. I think all confirmed Brucknerians should also purchase it.
Last time I commented on a Ballot performance, of the 8th, it was only on the surround recording quality, the main review being by a colleague. I feel that producer John Profitt has achieved a better picture of St Florian this time, maintaining the wonderful spaciousness but with enhanced detail. The strings sound clean and the brass emerges realistically from the mix. It would be interesting to know if John has changed anything since that issue or whether the vagaries of age are catching up with me. I note finally, that Ballot and his orchestra are scheduled to tackle the 5th, the 7th and the F minor Mass over the next years.