Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 5 in B Flat major, WAB 105
Altomonte Orchester St Florian/Rémy Ballot
rec. live, 18 August 2017, Brucknertage St Florian, Stiftsbasilika, St Florian, Austria
GRAMOLA SACD 99162 [89:29]
Rémy Ballot has arrived at Bruckner’s Fifth in his ongoing complete cycle of the composer’s symphonies – and for once, in this variable and uneven cycle, we have a performance that will likely stand the test of time. Indeed, the more I listen to it, the more I think this might become a classic recording. At just under 89 minutes, Ballot’s Fifth falls into the slowest quartile of performances of the symphony, but this is such a balanced view of the work, in which scale is so beautifully nuanced, that it really does not feel longer than it needs to be; this magnificent performance is equal to the stature of Bruckner’s colossal masterpiece.
Some conductors have taken a very extreme view of this symphony, perhaps most surprisingly Horst Stein with the Wuppertal Symphony Orchestra who takes 33 minutes over the fourth movement, by some margin the slowest performance on record. That we don’t run into traction problems owes much to Stein’s brilliance as a conductor, although like nearly all the conductors who give such breadth to the final movement – and there are many - Stein views it as a culmination of everything that precedes the great chorale. Neither Horst Stein, nor Sergiu Celibidache, who really sounds very leaden in some of his late recordings, could really be said to be models for Ballot’s performance, however. Ballot seems much closer to the early Bruckner Fifths of Christian Thielemann – especially a live Fifth with the Orchestra of the Deutsche Opera from 1999, a performance in which Thielemann took 88 minutes, but as dynamic and thrilling as any on record.
Leopold Nowak ends his introduction to his 1951 edition of the 1878 score (the one used here by Ballot) with the following words: “For all who have ever set foot in the mighty edifice of its polyphony, its melodic wealth, and its chorale, it remains an unforgettable experience”. This is rather what Ballot strives for, and what he largely achieves. I say largely, because there are some minor issues. The first movement, the only one that Bruckner ever began with such a slow introduction, strikes me as somewhat over weighty at the beginning – though, in fact, it is entirely in keeping with the scope and drama of this particular performance. There is a precedent for this, notably in the later performances of Sergiu Celibidache, and even Christian Thielemann, though one senses that the audience aren’t entirely convinced (a hint of restlessness is apparent). Bruckner’s lack of metronome markings in his scores, as opposed to giving just a tempo direction, gives a conductor some latitude. Ballot’s adagio tempi err towards the slowest on disc, just as his allegro tempi are also slower than the norm. It all seems to work because the conductor largely maintains a rigid basic tempo where crotchets from the Adagio section are balanced by minims from the Allegro sections of the corresponding movements. Ballot’s way with tempi in Bruckner’s Fifth is as far away from, say, Furtwängler’s or Burgin’s, as you could possibly get.
The vast first movement is somewhat unusual. Although fundamentally in two tempos – Adagio and Allegro – it is really a struggle, or quest, to find its tonality (and it takes Bruckner almost 500 bars to finally establish the B-flat he is searching for). More of a battle throughout this movement – indeed throughout much of this symphony – is the relationship between music and silence, between the great blocks of sound and the resonance of the acoustic Bruckner had in mind. The contrast between the blazing pedals of harmony and the great blasts of tonal weight from the brass is designed to be in conflict – yet also in absolute unity – with the inserted silences. In the opening bars of the music, Bruckner doesn’t just score for pizzicato strings; he inserts rest marks after each note, so the silence becomes as meaningful as the music itself. Ballot is as masterful as Christian Thielemann in giving equal weight and momentum to the value of those silences. It is debatable whether Ballot is anywhere near a true adagio here, and likewise some of his dynamics risk being too extreme - the opening pizzicato strings, for example, edge towards being too quiet. On the other hand, the coda is taken quickly - and is more effective as a result. Thielemann is somewhat hamstrung by the acoustic of the concert hall; Ballot allows his orchestra to breathe as each note expands fully in the St Florian acoustic.
However, the first movement, with its immense climaxes that interrupt the flow of this majestic journey, needs rather more than an inspired conductor to navigate the separation of its spaces, especially at the tempo adopted by Ballot. Crescendos and fortissimos are mighty, though Ballot is, I think, scrupulous in observing balances between brass and woodwind; indeed, the ability of the latter to play with such celestial and beatific tonality and phrasing, even in ostinato passages, is notable throughout.
Of less concern is the even slower opening to the Adagio. I would have been critical of it had Ballot not achieved something extraordinary – but he does. He establishes a tempo that is midway between Thielemann’s half-note twenty and Celibidache’s half-note fifteen (in his 1993 recording) but it is not until one gets to the great C-major theme at bar 31 (3’17) that this performance of the Adagio begins to move into the territory of the transcendental and seraphic. It is no surprise that the orchestra’s strings have such nobility and beauty of phrasing here – the arc of the melody is just ravishing. Like Thielemann, Ballot takes Bruckner’s Sehr kräftig, markig at Fig. B close to the tempo in which he opens the Adagio; Jonathan Nott, in his recent Tokyo Symphony performance, takes an entirely different approach, not only ignoring the marking, but increasing the tempo, which just sounds wrong to me. The solo for flute (7’20) at measure 139 is testing, as is the later solo, too, (c.14’40) but Ballot has nowhere to go but to slow down even further to a metronome marking that far exceeds the movement’s general tempo, so by c.16’43 the music comes close to stasis. But testing as Ballot’s tempo is, the flutist of the Altomonte Orchester is quite remarkable.
Despite the surface simplicity of this movement, there are challenges for any conductor. Some of Bruckner’s dynamic markings move between sudden extremes – such as in mm 169-173 where the strings are required to play in the space of five bars p, ff and pp. The diminuendo at Fig. M can sound eternal and like slabs of grey; it requires a great orchestra to bring it off and the Altomonte players (at c.21’03) do just that (the flute, oboe, clarinet and horn are all hugely atmospheric). An extra magical touch is that the bells of St Florian can just be heard as the music ends – an effect this recording shares with Takashi Asahina’s famous St Florian recording of Bruckner’s Seventh.
Ballot certainly takes a good deal longer over the Scherzo than most conductors, though one of the advantages of taking this music more slowly than normal is that the distinctive character of the music’s two major tempos is more clearly defined. Ballot is by no means slow at the beginning – it is energetic without being hard-driven: crotchets are surprisingly fleet, especially when contrasted with the ostinato bass line. The Trio is grander than one is used to – especially in a more orthodox, or balletic, performance, such as Abbado’s – helped in part by Ballot and the Altomonte Orchester attacking fortissimos with a ferocity that underplays the humoresque elements of the music.
The darker Scherzo is already rooted in the climax of the symphony – at least that might be the assumption before we get to it in Ballot’s performance. As with so many performances, the question is whether the conductor and his orchestra can maintain this equilibrium over the colossal span of the final movement with its multiple fugues and celebrated chorale. The first fugue at Fig A (c.2’12) and the first chorale at m.175, Fig H (c.8’01), gloriously announced on four horns, are moments of superb tension and beauty in Ballot’s performance and promise a majestic resolution to the symphony’s conclusion - though I admit to finding the unfolding of the triple fugue passages in the development section heavy in places. Crescendos are immense, done in parallel with passages that subside into a sublime, stunning calm. The re-entry of the chorale at the recapitulation - with magnificently bowed first violins just before, really articulating Bruckner’s weighted note phrasing – at Fig Q (c.17’10) – restores the gathering storm of momentum, and Ballot does so up to the beginning of the coda at Fig W (c.22’15). And the final pages of that coda! From c.25’16 onwards, Ballot and the Altomonte Orchester are simply stunning – unison horns and trombones, tremolo strings at fff, and a surging tidal wave of timpani bring the symphony to its close. The sheer monumentality of this ending in the performance here, and the narrative of contrapuntal might that is conjured up, are staggering. The tonal weight achieved is quite extraordinary, too. The orchestra are not in the slightest slowed down by the tempo or the music – rather, they seem to be driven by their own momentum.
Bruckner never heard a performance of his Fifth Symphony, but I imagine that if he had heard this one, in this acoustic, he would have been very satisfied. The playing of the Altomonte Orchester is ravishing and some of the solos – especially from the woodwind – are just exquisite. The recording, especially on the SACD layer, is superb. John Gladney Proffitt’s production and engineering of the recording from St Florian is extraordinarily detailed – strings are sumptuously toned, and there is also a beautiful balance between the brass and woodwind choirs. Given the acoustic, and especially the conductor’s observation of Bruckner’s bar rests, reverberation is almost non-existent. My only criticism is that sometimes the pizzicato string playing is on the quiet-side – though I am unsure whether this is the conductor deliberately toning it down or microphone placement just not picking it up sufficiently in St Florian. Audience noise is a touch intrusive, but not enough to destroy one’s enjoyment of this performance.
None of Rémy Ballot’s previous recordings of the Bruckner symphonies has persuaded me he has much to say about the composer. This performance of the Fifth, however, is quite remarkable on many levels – certainly the finest of the symphony for many years.
Previous review: Ralph Moore