June 09, 2022


Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 (1888 version). Altomonte Orchester St. Florian conducted by Rémy Ballot. Gramola. $21.99 (SACD).

Brahms: Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 for Clarinet or Viola and Piano; Two Rhapsodies for Solo Piano, Op. 79. Yuri Bashmet, viola; Ksenia Bashmet, piano. Fondamenta. $17.99.

     The emotionalism that lies at the heart of the Romantic era was associated for many years with gigantism in performances: huge choruses and very large orchestras were the norm for performances of, for example, Handel’s Messiah, and Romantic-era composers themselves called for larger and larger complements of musicians to communicate their ideas and emotions – culminating in works such as Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, “Symphony of a Thousand,” which in some instances really did include that many performers. Since the rise of historically informed performance practices, most of this overdoneness has thankfully been abandoned, but it still seeps through in certain performances – if not in terms of the forces involved, then in respect to the tempos chosen and the tendency to overextend a work’s length and strongly emphasize, perhaps even overemphasize, its outsized emotions. The approach can actually work very well when applied with sufficient skill to appropriate music, as Rémy Ballot has demonstrated again and again with his Gramola recordings of Bruckner symphonies. Ballot invariably chooses slow, stately tempos that turn Bruckner’s vast canvases into even vaster ones: the performances produce, at their best, a sense of timelessness and a near-infinitude of emotional expansiveness. And those are the qualities that come through strongly in Ballot’s new recording of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4, which the composer himself christened “Romantic.” Make no mistake: this is a divisive performance in several ways. What is not arguable is how extremely well the music is played: the Altomonte Orchester St. Florian invariably gives Ballot exactly what he wants, and the exceptional sectional balance and sheer beauty of the instrumental sound, notably in the string and brass sections, are never in doubt for a moment. What is arguable is what is played and how it is played. Ballot chooses the long-discredited but more recently reconsidered 1888 version of Bruckner’s Fourth, the version representing the composer’s final thinking about this much-revised symphony – and also containing the thoughts of several well-meaning but comparatively uncreative revisers. It is the modifications that have long spurred contempt for this version, being thought spurious and unapproved by the composer. This has led to widespread acceptance of the 1878/1880 version of the symphony, which remains by far the most frequently performed Bruckner Fourth. However, Benjamin Korstvedt has in recent years argued cogently and convincingly that the changes in the 1888 version, even when not made in Bruckner’s own hand, are not spurious, but were approved and accepted by the composer – and that the refusal to accept the 1888 version as Bruckner’s last thoughts on this so-often-altered work is ill-informed.

     Korstvedt’s 2004 edition of this symphony is the one Ballot uses here, and it is an excellent edition that certainly matches the 1888 Bruckner Fourth with the 1878/1880 form of the symphony. The how of the playing, though, is more likely to be a source of consternation for listeners than the what is performed. This is a symphony that generally lasts a bit more than an hour, sometimes up to 70 minutes or so. Even conductors known for generally favoring slow tempos present it in the 70-minute range. Not Ballot. This performance – a live recording from August 2021 – runs 80 minutes, longer by far than any other recent recording of the work. The argument among listeners will be whether Ballot’s very deliberate use of a very deliberate pace works, or whether it turns Bruckner’s Fourth into bloat. From the very opening of the first movement, Ballot makes his tempo choices central to the interpretation: if there is an element of sunrise at the start, the sun is rising very slowly indeed. The first movement proceeds at a speed that often goes beyond stately into the realm of near-stasis. But here is the thing: Ballot’s consistency of tempo, his determined adherence to his chosen approach, and the excellence of the orchestra in keeping things at the chosen speed and using the expansiveness to explore the inner voices and intricacies of the music, result in a first movement so captivating as to be nearly magical – if one is inclined to be swept away into the sound world that Ballot here creates. The second movement is scarcely the Andante it is marked as being, seeming almost to be appended to the first movement at a similar pace (as is the case with the two completed movements of the “Unfinished” symphony by Schubert, who was a significant influence on Bruckner). The pacing of the third and fourth movements is more conventional, showing that Ballot has no problem picking up and sustaining quicker speeds when he feels the music warrants them. But the overall effect of the symphony is that of a vast cathedral of music, a sense of spaciousness more often associated with Bruckner’s Symphonies Nos. 7 and 8 than with No. 4. Listeners willing to put aside preconceptions of how the symphony should sound (the 1888 version has some noticeable differences from earlier ones) and how it should be paced will have an extraordinary experience with Ballot’s rendition.

     It is worth noting that Ballot’s penchant for building grand symphonic edifices through extremely slow tempos is an inherent characteristic of the Bruckner cycle that he is in the process of creating for Gramola. Ballot’s Bruckner Second, for example, uses the original and much more extended 1872 version rather than the more-often-heard one from 1877, which in most performances runs less than an hour. The 1872 version usually takes about 70 minutes to perform, but Ballot’s runs 84 minutes and as such is spread across two discs. Ballot’s Bruckner Second, like Ballot’s Bruckner Fourth, is a considerable achievement that shines new light on the symphony and its composer in many ways. But it cannot be gainsaid that as fine as the playing is in the new Bruckner Fourth release – and as good as the recording is, for it too is excellent – this is not a performance for everyone. It is convincing on its own terms, but those are, in many ways, ultra-Romantic terms, which will not be universally appealing.

     The new Brahms recording by the father-and-daughter duo of Yuri and Ksenia Bashmet also suffers from somewhat too much Romanticism – and indeed is less successful employing the approach than is Ballot’s Bruckner Fourth. Once again, the actual playing here is exemplary: warm, committed, nuanced, and at times almost achingly beautiful in the viola parts. And Fondamenta offers the release in a very unusual way: there are two versions of the same CD presented, one maximized for high-fidelity audio systems and the other edited differently to achieve the best possible effect when played through a computer’s or automobile’s sound system. This is an innovative and very welcome approach – but in the case of this (+++) release, it has been put at the service of performances that constantly threaten to collapse of their own weight. As excellent a violist as he is, Yuri Bashmet seems quite uncomfortable with the Brahms Op. 120 sonatas – quite unwilling, if not unable, to allow them to flow naturally and to express essentially modest levels of emotion through writing of pervasive beauty. Bashmet wants the music to be far more serious and intense than it is: these performances are studied, not spontaneous, with the lovely natural flow of the music all too often absent altogether. Like Ballot, Yuri Bashmet uses slow tempos to communicate his view of the music – but these late Brahms pieces do not work as well with the approach as Bruckner’s Fourth at least arguably does. Turning a fleet and rather sweet 20-minute sonata into a ponderous 25-minute work does not make it better by one-quarter – only longer by that amount. Bashmet’s viola playing imparts to the sonatas a sense of gigantism that, even for these late-Romantic works, is simply out of place. And it is not merely the tempo choices and comparative absence of lightness and delicacy that result in a misplaced level of gravity for these works. Bashmet continually, indeed almost continuously, indulges in a performance mannerism that wholly spoils the works’ lyrical flow: a recurring hesitation before or in the midst of phrases, the minuscule pauses before or during a transition, or in the middle of a flowing line, making the music choppy. Bashmet apparently tends the hesitation-before-attack to show a higher level of intensity, but his mannered approach quickly wears thin. The near-total absence of lightness and delicacy is simply misguided in these sonatas, although, for what it is worth, this sort of frequent rubato is a longstanding characteristic of unreconstructed neo-Romantic-style performance despite its inappropriateness for these particular works. Ksenia Bashmet follows her father’s lead in fine style in the sonatas, accepting his approach and reinforcing it through the solidity and emphatic nature of her playing. But she really comes into her own in the two Op. 79 solo-piano rhapsodies. They were written 15 years earlier than the viola-and-piano sonatas, in 1879, and are full of the passion and Sturm und Drang intensity so often associated with the Romantic era. Here they sound atmospheric, highly emotive, fantasia-like in their frequent mood changes, and certainly as steeped in the Romantic era as can be. But this is not overdone Romanticism: it fits the music well, and proves to be the high point of some family-focused musical collaboration that otherwise misfires conceptually, although not in terms of the quality of the performances.

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