Bruckner Symphony No. 6 Rémy Ballot
Rémy Ballot, cond
Gramola (SACD: 69:08)
This the fourth in a series of Bruckner recordings from conductor Rémy Ballot on the Gramola label, and the second to feature the Upper Austrian Youth Symphony Orchestra, following an Eighth Symphony with them in 2014 (Gramola 99054). All were recorded at the Brucknertage, a festival of the composer’s music held annually at the St. Florian monastery where he spent the early years of his career, and where he is buried—the basilica there obviously having strong connections with the composer’s work, but also providing a “cathedral of sound” atmosphere, conducive, in theory at least, with the scale of his symphonies.
The first thing to say about this interpretation is that it is long. Very long. At over 69 minutes it is well within Celibidache territory. In fact, it is even longer than the one currently available Celibidache recording, with the Munich Philharmonic from 1991 (Warner 56694), which times in at 66 minutes. That makes Ballot a strong contender for the slowest reading on record, a dubious honor indeed.
So why the snail’s pace? My guess is that Ballot is negotiating a resonant church acoustic and feels he needs space to bring out the details. But if so, I’d expect to hear tightly shaped phrases and long pauses after climaxes, neither of which he offers. Also, the acoustic doesn’t sound too resonant on the recording, bar a slight and distant echo on the lower brass after some tuttis, although close-up miking may be the issue here.
The comparison with Celibidache is instructive, as it demonstrates how fluid the older conductor’s stately tempos were. Ballot, by contrast, rarely uses significant tempo changes to shape the music significantly, and only speeds up when the score obliges him, and even then it seems under duress. The youth orchestra, to its credit, copes well with the inevitably drawn-out phrases, with the woodwinds in particular holding their tone across the long lines. The unity of the string sound is impressive for a youth orchestra, although their tone lacks character, and it would be nice to hear a bit more punch from them on the few occasions that Bruckner has them lead the charge into a climax. The brass sound is impressively controlled, with the narrow-bore instruments giving a good measure of central European color. Typically for a youth orchestra, the brass section is bolstered, with six horns playing four parts, and four trumpets and trombones playing three parts each. But the results balance well with the rest of the ensemble and never overpower.
The SACD audio favors precision over atmosphere, for reasons surmised above, and does full justice to all of the young players. Ultimately, though, Ballot’s slow and unimaginative conducting makes this release little more than a souvenir or a curiosity. A few seconds of applause is included at the end, but it doesn’t sound very enthusiastic.