BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 8 (1890 Revision) – Upper Austrian Youth Orch./Remy Ballot – Gramola multichannel SACD (2 discs) 99054, 103:46 [Distr. by Naxos] (1/13/15) *****:
I’m something of a Bruckner fanatic, and along with the legion of Brucknerites out there, I consider his Eighth Symphony probably the finest symphonic example of the Romantic era of classical music. The music is so magisterial and uplifting, it’s as close to a religious experience as you can possibly get via your hifi. My personal favorite version is conducted by Jascha Horenstein leading the London Symphony Orchestra in a live recording on the BBC label that’s been released countless times over the years on countless labels – I think the BBC actually had the performance rights, but everyone else seemingly bootlegged it with uniformly mediocre results. The current imprint is surprisingly good sounding for a live recording fraught with audience noise, but no modern version – in my personal book – approaches the sublime quite like Horenstein, warts and all. Until now, at least!
When this new SACD album showed up a while back in my mail, I kind of gave it a bit of a short shrift – on a label (Gramola) I’d never heard of, plus a conductor, Remy Ballot, that didn’t ring any bells with me, either. And I had to get an online translation to figure out that the orchestra was the Upper Austrian Youth Orchestra – this probably, definitely indicated a less than satisfying artistic and listening experience upcoming – the average age of the orchestra members is seventeen, for crying out loud! And when, in my usual fashion, I ripped the disc to my music server, I had to manually key in all the pertinents – the disc wasn’t even on any of the meta sites yet. Such inconvenience!
I typically add a dozen or so new discs or downloads to my music server every week, so this one languished for a couple of weeks until I picked up the then-current Stereophile magazine, and low and behold, here’s that Bruckner disc by that youth orchestra, their recommended “Recording of the Month!” Maybe I should give this disc a listen!
The live recording took place in the Basilica of St. Florians – where Bruckner himself was organist for many years, and he’s entombed within the confines of the church. This is Bruckner’s home turf, so to speak, and whether or not these youthful musicians are steeped in the Brucknerian tradition, they give an utterly convincing performance. Remy Ballot does an amazing job with these young players; you’d be hard-pressed to find any flaws with the playing in this stellar recording. His pacing is quite slow – this is very possibly the slowest (and longest) Bruckner 8th on record. But with such majestic music, the tempi employed throughout are definitely appropriate. This is a difficult work for even the most skilled orchestra imbued in the Romantic tradition, and that these young players can acquit themselves so admirably is indeed miraculous.
The SACD disc offers amazingly good surround sound – it’s a model of good hi-res multichannel presentation of large-scale classical music. If I only want to listen to certain movements, it’s definitely the preferred format. But I have to admit that a very guilty pleasure for me is listening to the 2-channel rip via my music server – which also sounds remarkably good, and allows me to listen without the hindrance of getting up and changing the disc for the entire hour and forty-plus minutes run time. And the sound quality of the 16/44.1 rip is remarkably close in tone to the SACD. This is a very rich-sounding disc, and a richly rewarding listening experience, regardless of format. Very highly recommended!