Transcendent Bruckner at St Florian Abbey from Ballot and the Altomonte Orchestra

19.09.2014 23:35

Concert reviews are of their nature very subjective and, indeed, sometimes it’s hard to believe that different reviewers were at the same concert. So it is always gratifying to be able to provide the reader with an objective fact: at over 90 minutes, this was probably the longest lasting performance of Bruckner’s third symphony ever performed – certainly longer than any recorded performance. If you consider that Kamdzhalov and the Heidelberg Philharmonic dispatched the work in 60 minutes and that Georg Tintner’s wonderfully spacious and ground-breaking recording from 1998 with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra lasts 78 minutes, I can say, quite objectively, that this was an extraordinary performance.

Rémy Ballot © Reinhard Winkler Fotografie
Rémy Ballot

From 1873 to 1889, Bruckner produced three and a quarter versions of this symphony (the quarter being another version of the slow movement from 1876). What was played at this concert was his very first version, the score he took to show Wagner, who was so impressed by the opening trumpet theme that he accepted the dedication of the work and thereafter referred to “Bruckner, the trumpet”. This version, in terms of bars, is Bruckner’s longest work – 2,056 of them, though objectivity obliges me to report that four bars of cello and double bass pizzicato that introduce the second theme in the finale were cut from this performance. In his third revision of 1890 Bruckner cut it down by over 400 bars, and that version had been excellently played by Matthias Giesen and Franz Farnberger, in a transcription for two pianos and to a standing ovation, earlier in this BrucknerTage (BrucknerDays) festival week at St Florian.

So how did the audience react to an hour and a half of very slow Bruckner? Did they get restless? Did they fidget and cough and rustle their programme notes? Did they leave in droves after each movement, as the audience at the first performance of 1877 had? Not a bit of it: the capacity audience sat on the hard pews of St Florian Abbey as though mesmerized. For a start, it was all so beautiful. St Florian, where the boy Bruckner was sent to be brought up by monks when his father died, is the biggest Baroque monastery in Upper Austria, the Abbey vast and richly decorated. Into this glorious space there arose from the Altomonte Orchestra sounds of such surpassing beauty that it was enough just to listen and wonder at the sounds alone.

The Altomonte Orchestra was founded in 1996, based at St Florian and named after Altomonte, father and son, both Baroque painters responsible for some of the large frescoes in St Florian. It consists of young musicians from Austria and various countries worldwide, together with first class musicians from such orchestras as the Vienna Philharmonic and the Bruckner Orchestra Linz, and the string tone they produced in the echoing acoustic seemed to glow from within. They set up a shimmering D minor haze at the opening of the symphony out of which sounds that tremendous trumpet motif, then a steady increase in volume and activity, though not in speed, leads to the fortissimo announcement of the first theme proper, followed by a long pause – the first of many. They are wonderful things, these Brucknerian pauses, especially when in the context of a slow performance and in a reverberant ecclesiastical space you hear the echo die away, and feel the quiet, calm meditative silence that underpins the music.

And this is perhaps a clue to the second thing that kept us enraptured. It's very courageous for a conductor to stand in front of an orchestra and large audience and embark on a performance of such extended duration, but there was in Rémy Ballot's direction such an assured sense of the long paragraph, of faith in the music, that beneath it all there seemed to be a quietness that took us far, far away from the everyday world of bustle and passion. His beat was primarily steady, with an ongoing pulse that never let the slow tempo get moribund, so although this was not an interpretation that moved urgently towards its climaxes it nevertheless maintained an unwavering sense purpose.

In a long-breathed performance such as this, it might seem inappropriate to pull out certain points – yes, the unison climax of the first movement thundered with elemental power; yes, the song-period (as Bruckner called his second themes) really sang; yes, the ländler dances in the Scherzo and Trio had real lift and lilt (well, this is Austria after all!), and yes, the brass and woodwind played their extended chorales with great beauty and solemnity – but ultimately it was the achievement of the sublime immensity of the whole that is to be applauded, a performance that, for all the dramatic and, at times, bizarre events that occur during its progress, addressed itself to the quiet, transcendent illumination that shines through this composer's work. It is concerts such as this that demonstrate the unique ability of music to communicate things that are not easily put into words but which we desperately need to hear.

In August next year, the BrucknerTage will focus on the mighty Eighth Symphony. I think it might be worth making a special effort to be there!