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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, WAB 102 “Pausensinfonie” (Original version 1872, ed. Carragan 2005)
Altomonte Orchester St Florian/Rémy Ballot
rec. live 23 August 2019, Brucknertage St Florian, Stiftsbasilika, St Florian, Austria
GRAMOLA 99211 SACD [36:42 + 47:57]

As is so often the case with Bruckner, a quick first word on the score in use here is in order: it is Prof. William Carragan’s edition of the 1872 version, which puts the Scherzo second, retains the lovely horn solo in the Adagio (which was later designated as an Andante) rather than the later re-scoring for clarinet and restores about 250 bars of music, which in particular has the effect of extending the finale compared with the later, cut versions.

The conductor here in St Florian is Rémy Ballot, and if you don’t already know what to expect from his Bruckner by now then you will be surprised by the daring breadth of his tempi. However, most Bruckner aficionados will know where they stand with regard to Ballot’s approach to editions and tempi, given that this is the seventh in his series of live Bruckner recordings from the Stiftbasilika. I include the timings for individual movements below to help indicate where they most diverge from other recordings of the 1872 Erfassung. Every other interpreter of this first version takes around 71 minutes over the whole symphony, whereas Ballot’s performance here totals nearly 85 minutes. Compared with his predecessors, he is two or three minutes slower in the first and second movements, three or four minutes slower in the Adagio and at least a full five minutes slower than any other version in the finale, amounting to thirteen and more minutes slower overall than at least four other versions on my shelves.

In the estimation of many a better judge of Bruckner than I, he has for the most part got away with his interpretative stance which is inevitably seen as indebted, and indeed an homage, to Ballot’s one-time mentor Celibidache. His insistence upon giving Bruckner’s music time to breathe, glow and expand pays dividends to the patient listener – and of course suits ideally the reverberant acoustic of the performance venue. Producer and Sound Engineer John Profitt has considerable experience in recording in St Florian’s and here manages to tame its echo inherent without diminishing its splendour. We are obviously listening to a live performance; at times there are a few ambient noises, faint coughs and something of a wash of sound as opposed to the highlighting of instrumental strands a studio recording ensures but that spaciousness merely serves to enhance its grandeur. Overall, I find the ambiance pleasing but it should be noted that I am listening only in conventional stereo, not the multichannel SACD surround-sound option, which is no doubt even better.

The famous pauses in this “Pausensinfonie” are given full weight and make their mark accordingly, while the playing is of the very high quality that we have come to expect from this young, international orchestra. The nervous, brooding introduction makes its mark immediately, eschewing any sense of lethargy, the gentle, ambling second subject blooms gratefully as we stroll through Alpine landscapes and the leaping third theme is well sprung; there is an appealing lightness to the exchanges between various woodwind I am at no point conscious of any undue lethargy. The restless, pulsing coda comes across as grand and climactic, with Ballot controlling the dynamics of its crescendo and dotted rhythm peroration admirably.

The Scherzo suffers most both from a certain mushiness in the articulation of its ostinato main theme, a disadvantage inherent in both the acoustic and the ponderousness of Ballot’s tempo. It is grand but hardly exciting and the trumpets sound more distant than admonitory, but the lilting Trio is light and dreamy. The Adagio unfolds serenely and unhurriedly without dragging; here, rather than obscuring detail, the spacious ambiance confers a warm lambency upon the orchestral sound, even if the diffuseness of the uncut material is not wholly disguised. The finale opens massively and once again, here the acoustic properties of the venue are an advantage in lending gravitas to proceedings before the lyrical ‘Schubertian’ A major theme. Again, too, despite the slower speeds adopted by Ballot, I do not sense any slackening in tension; the ethereal passage beginning at 5:30, where the strings sing aloft, their refrain punctuated by enigmatic silences, is very evocative. I appreciate that playing the complete, original score of the finale can render it prolix and even make it outstay its welcome; it is full of oddities and will always be something of a potpourri but it is also replete with incidental beauties and if you do want to hear everything Bruckner wrote before imposing some judicious cuts, Ballot here follows Gerd Schaller’s recording by giving it the best advocacy.

Many a Bruckner devotee will retain a preference for the 1877 Nowak version also with the cuts in the finale restored, as recorded by Karajan but this recording offers both intrinsic aesthetic quality and intellectual interest by virtue of the edition used.

The double CD set is packaged in a handsome, carboard, fold-out digipack containing a booklet with half-a-dozen colour photographs and notes in German and English.

Ralph Moore

Movement timings
I.   Allegro, ziemlich schnell [23:06]
II.  Scherzo: Schnell, Trio: Gleiches Tempo [13:43]
III. Adagio: Feierlich, etwas bewegt [21:35]
IV. Finale: Mehr schnell [26:20]

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