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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major, WAB 104
Version III 1888 (ed. Korstvedt 2004)
Altomonte Orchester St Florian/Rémy Ballot
rec. live, 21 August 2021, Stiftsbasilika St Florian, Upper Austria
GRAMOLA 99261 SACD [79:27]

This was one of the editions used by Jakub Hrůša in his excellent survey of all four versions – however, in typically expansive fashion, Rémy Ballot’s performance here takes a full eleven minutes longer than Hrůša’s, a feature especially apparent in the finale which is over five minutes more. This will as usual divide listeners, but both regular Ballot admirers and those less enamoured of his approach will know what to expect and can hardly express any surprise. To the untutored ear perhaps, apart from one or two more obvious alterations, the third version does not sound so very different from the more usually performed second version but as Ballot remarks in his note, the cumulative effect of the “numerous and precise changes in tempos, dynamics, instrumentation, and two moderate contractions” is to give the symphony a “younger, fresher” feeling; for me, its main challenge is to sustain sufficient tension in the finale, where the altered instrumentation and slower tempo marking to “Sehr langsam” risk vitiating the impact of the coda, despite the addition of “a pianissimo cymbal crash to the trumpet” at the last climax.

Likewise, Bruckner aficionados will know if they find the acoustic of the Stiftsbasilika to their taste; certainly the recording team headed by producer and sound engineer John Proffitt knows exactly how to handle it and I for one am very happy with the manner in which they achieve a balance between retaining its grandeur without obscuring detail although there is no denying that we hear nothing like the spotlit focus of a studio recording and there is still something of a wash of sound which some might find too diffuse. Nonetheless, there is a spacious grandeur about the opening three minutes, as the repeated horn call over tremolo strings eases into the famous “Bruckner rhythm” figure; the whole passage is marked by a stately assurance which does not drag. The music relaxes into the lyrical Gesangsperiode before building magnificently to the double forte brass chorale. There is an overall sweep and a sense of cohesive narrative about Ballot’s delivery of this first movement that I find wholly convincing.

I am somewhat less convinced by the leisurely pace of the Andante, whose extra two minutes compared with Hrůša lends it a certain undesirable torpor; in truth, I start to find myself losing interest as the long movement meanders on its way but half way through my concentration is revived by the beauty of the playing and the conclusion is imposing. Despite the cuts and changes to its dynamic markings, the Scherzo here seems closer to the conventional version we hear and is more recognisably familiar in its effect; the gentle Trio is especially lovely taken a fraction more slowly as it here - although I appreciate that some might find the diminuendo before it starts and the pause in the crescendo before the re-appearance of the main Scherzo theme a little bizarre.

As well evincing the greatest number of changes in the score, in Ballot’s hands the finale is the most radically different from other recordings and versions by virtue of his willingness to adopt slower tempi. However, there is no sense of undue lethargy about his attack in the opening marching theme; the brass and percussion bring real bite to its exposition, rising to a superb first climax three minutes in. The sombre, singing theme which ensues benefits from Ballot’s careful attention to dynamics and his very gradual but inexorable accelerando, such that every section of what can become a fragmented movement – always a danger with Bruckner’s finales - retains its own integrity and function within the totality of the movement’s structure, such that this listener, at least, is not conscious of any undue inertia. The coda might on first hearing seem to begin absurdly hesitantly but give it a chance and it culminates in an overwhelming blaze of sound. Slimmed-down, low-fat Bruckner this is not – but those with a taste for a lighter, leaner, more transparently textured approach are now increasingly being catered for by equally laudable but rather different modern recordings such as the recent releases from François-Xavier Roth of the Seventh (see my review). Meanwhile, performances such as this continue to appeal to Brucknerians such as I who prefer more monumental fare.

The slimline cardboard packaging with half a dozen colour photographs of the basilica and the personnel involved and full notes are all very attractive. Applause erupts after a decent interval has elapsed.

There is a little mistranslation – or misprint? – in the English version of the fine notes, as zupfen is rendered as “tuck” rather than “tug”, describing how Bruckner would meekly but resolutely alert his conductor to the omission of some detail by pulling on his coat-tail.

Ralph Moore

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