The annual BrucknerTage mini-fest at St Florian monastery in Upper Austria is the summit of Bruckner performance worldwide: it doesn’t come any better than this. That is, of course, not to say that the performances you hear here are necessarily the greatest, but the privilege of being at this magical site – the vast baroque monastery that was always Bruckner’s true home, in Bruckner’s landscape, nourished by his favourite food and his favourite drink, with Bruckner’s people, so welcoming and warm-hearted, seriously devoted to doing the best for their home-grown composer – that privilege is the priceless gift of the tiny group of local aficionados who organise this beautiful event.

The triumphant close of Bruckner’s vast Eighth Symphony, where – as conductor Rémy Ballot wrote in the programme booklet – there is “in truth no ending, but a final ‘baptism in light’, a vision of eternity, of hope, of the elevation of humanity into a timeless dimension,” was not only Bruckner’s triumph, but that of the quite superlative Upper Austrian Youth Orchestra – average age a mere 17 years old. In this mighty coda, paced at a grandly slow tempo, each internal paragraph shaped and measured to perfection, they presented with indomitable power the superimposition of the main themes of each movement in a resplendent C major: it resounded through the Abbey, pulsating with energy and shining like silver and gold.

St Florian Monastery, Upper Austria
St Florian Monastery, Upper Austria

It came as a fitting and glorious conclusion to a week where one might feel – wrongly! – that one had learnt all there was to know about Bruckner’s Eighth. Professor Paul Hawkshaw, after 12 years examining over 10,000 pages of manuscript, was able to cast light on the vexed question of Bruckner’s young disciple’s involvement in the production of this 1890 version of the symphony. Matthias Giesen and Franz Farnberger provided a stunning tour de force in a performance of a two-piano transcription of the symphony, and wandering into the great Abbey on the couple of days preceding the performance it was also possible to hear the orchestral rehearsals. The young people were playing immaculately, wonderful soloists in brass and woodwind, but there was an extraordinary moment at the extended quiet ending of the Adagio when a baby who had presumably been sleeping peacefully for over an hour in its mother’s arms suddenly awoke in terror and gave vent to a frantic howl. A nightmare for John Proffitt, the recording engineer, but it was as though some early-infant experience underlying Bruckner’s music had suddenly been given voice! 

Fortunately no such trauma intervened in the actual performance. It was as long a performance of this symphony as you are likely to hear, lasting over 1 hour 50 minutes. Partly this was because Maestro Ballot did what the score asks for: the finale is to begin ‘Solemnly, not fast’ – it did; and the indication for the second theme is ‘Slower’ – it was; and there is nothing to say that the third theme group should quicken up – and it sounded very slow indeed. It’s a little march-like theme that suddenly stops for a ‘long pause’, whereupon out of the silence a wonderful visionary chorale on high strings and winds descends as though from heaven: the youth orchestra played it as though they were angels; it was – as the saying goes – ‘a moment to die for.’

Partly the length was due to the need to perform to the special acoustic of this vast, reverberant sacred building: it’s pointless ploughing on at speed if the music flounders within its own echo, and the conductor responded with patience and creative integrity to the voice of Bruckner's church. Of course it’s risky to go so slow, but the benefits were manifold. There are some woodwind solos – the oboe in the first movement development, the flute and clarinets’ descending scale in the Adagio second theme – that were played with such slow, passionate inwardness that one hardly dared breathe for fear of destroying the holy silence by which they were surrounded. And at this slow tempo the massive climaxes were as though spelt out syllable by syllable, the young musicians voicing the old composer’s message of holy dread.

In rehearsal Maestro Ballot had endowed the Scherzo with a rocking motion, swaying his head from side to side as he conducted, taking the music subtly away from the thumping rustic accent it often displays. Maybe the formality of the actual performance was a little oppressive, but for some reason that gentle freedom was lost. But the trio, extremely slow at half the speed of the Scherzo, sang so very sweetly, with a pastoral lightness of touch, beautifully embellished by harps.

The Adagio was for me as perfect a performance as I’m likely to hear, over half an hour of some of the most beautiful and visionary music the composer ever wrote. The passionately expressive string playing this orchestra provided for its conductor belied their immaturity. That they could rehearse and perform such a sustained and intense performance as this seemed nothing short of miraculous. On the night there were a few blemishes and inaccuracies, most notably in the first two movements, that had not arisen in the earlier rehearsals: maybe the pressures of the occasion, dressed up smart with ambitious parents, siblings and tutors in attendance, exacted their toll, or maybe by now they were just tired out. But Rémy Ballot kept over a minute’s meditative silence before embarking on the Adagio and it was as though everyone had been recharged and refocused; the performance rose to a new intensity which carried it triumphantly to its blazing close.

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