Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 - Honeck

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 - Honeck

Reference Recordings  FR-724SACD


Classical - Orchestral

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5
Barber: Adagio for Strings

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Manfred Honeck (conductor)

In his fascinating and scholarly music notes, Maestro Honeck gives us great insight into the history of both pieces, and describes how he conducts and interprets each. He reminds us that Joseph Stalin's Soviet government was offended by Shostakovich's previous works. Under threat of arrest or banishment to Siberia, Shostakovich devised a new, less-complex compositional style for the 5th Symphony, still full of irony and double meaning, to appease Stalin and appeal to the common people.

The Adagio of Samuel Barber is his most performed work, and one of the most popular of all 20th Century orchestral works. It is beloved for its beautiful simplicity and emotion. Manfred Honeck describes Barber's 1967 a capella version for mixed choir using the "Agnus Dei" text, and tells us his own interpretation is inspired by this text. He says it is "for me, without a doubt, the key to finding a deeper sense of this piece. Perhaps it is for this reason that the Adagio has enchanted and moved audiences around the world since its very first incarnation and has continued to do so in all subsequent versions born since."

This release is the seventh in the highly acclaimed Pittsburgh Live! series of releases from Reference Recordings.

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14 of 15 recommend this, would you recommend it?  yes | no

DSD recording

Recorded live 7-9 June 2013 (Shostakovich) and 11-13 October 2013 (Barber) at the Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States, DSD 256fs

Recording producer and editing: Dirk Sobotka (Soundmirror Inc. Boston)

Balance engineer, mixing and mastering: Mark Donahue (Soundmirror Inc. Boston)

Recording software: Merging Technologies Pyramix (DSD) Workstation
Reviews (1)

Review by Adrian Quanjer - August 3, 2017

The inevitable question of ‘do we really need another Shostakovich 5’ must be answered with a clear and unequivocal YES. In high resolution alone the total count stands at 29. However, the sound quality of many of them is not all that high (to say the least), while some are too expensive for most and, regrettably, a number do not belong to the top echelon. That leaves us with only a hand full of competitors, according to taste and leaning. As for this present release, one might say that the producers have been sitting on a treasure trove for much too long. Recorded in the autumn of 2013 it is only now, almost four years later that - for reasons we may never know - this further example of the extraordinary marriage between Honeck and the Pittsburghers comes to light.

My first encounter with this symphony and since then my long-standing preference was with Bernard Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Decca). His’ was, and still is, intelligently shaped, masterly interpreted, and beautifully recorded. At the time it outshone many other first-rate performances in RBCD. However, times change, technique improves and it became evident that Super Audio adds so much more detail to these complex symphonies.

Shostakovich’s symphonies lend themselves to different interpretations. Hence, most music lovers have their own favourite performances and so have I. In High Definition, I have listened to the not so very well recorded, nor directed performance by Rostropovich (LSO Live) and the highly charged but badly remastered Gergiev (Philips), discarding both for Kreizberg (Pentatone). With this new edition and with a view to earlier, inquisitive and personal interpretations from Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony, I was anxious to hear what they had to say this time.

The fifth is special in that it is Shostakovich’s most popular, easiest accessible and, not to be neglected in those days: the only symphony having sufficient ‘popular’ elements to be in line with the Soviet Ministry of Culture’s taste. But that’s only the view from the outside. Not only was Shostakovich a master of composing, but he was also a master of deceiving, too. The inside of the building gives ample opportunity for discernment. For Party Bosses it was an auto realignment of an obstinate composer (Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk) to proletarian consumption. Intellectuals, however, recognized Dmitri’s cleverly masked deceit, taking all these Bosses for a ride behind the carefully masked layers of neo-romantic prose and outbursts of sarcasm. That is how I see it.

What I particularly like about Maestro Honeck is that he tells the listener how he sees what he plays. His notes are well researched and extremely well written. Reading his views on the fifth correspond to advance listening, making one ready for the thrill when putting it to the test. I was not disappointed.

Listening to the first movement one discovers how he has delved deeply into its structure and meaning. Turning it into an open book for any serious Shostakovich addict. He takes about two minutes more than Kreizberg to state his case. And this without any sense of dragging. It’s all about building up tension, opening doors to even the darkest room in the building, bringing light to hidden niches. Letting the Supreme Soviet march to the banal, march-like rhythms, thus conveying their belief that they had taught Shostakovich once and for all a salty lesson, and doing so with the undertone of a composer dumping his nose to the self-proclaimed masters. This is how it should be understood and played.

In his notes Honeck makes extensive reference to Mahler, giving ample examples in relation to various passages in the Symphony, amongst which the dance-like elements in the second movement. The fact is that both Mahler and Shostakovich were - in my view - great if not the greatest symphonists of the twentieth century and it seems logical that the younger must have been impressed with the way the older handled his material. Living, however, in different worlds Shostakovich’s language is different. His Larghetto is dark and somber, despite its lyrical appearance. The brilliantly biting lower strings of the Pittsburgh Symphony set the tone right from the start

In the view of Maestro Honeck the third movement is free from double meanings and any hints towards the pseudo cultured demands of the regime. I’m not so sure, as I’m not sure of anything Shostakovich does. He hardly ever spoke about what he did and what he meant, and if he did so, he remained opaque. For Honeck it’s the central part of the symphony and I share that vision. Here the composer lets his feelings of despair and sorrow flow freely. It’s the kind of grief only Russians are able to display, like, for instance, Tchaikovsky in the final movement of his sixth symphony. But it would seem that Shostakovich’s has a wider meaning and I’m with those who are convinced that it also counts for the grief of so many having suffered under Stalin’s murderous regime. Honeck and his players give a memorable account, flawlessly combining lament and lyricism.

It is suggested that the final movement is the antithesis of the first: The ‘optimistic resolution of the tragic tension of the first movement’. Few, with probably the exception of soviet officials, have given credibility to this official statement by the composer. In fact, nothing is farther from the truth. I’m in full agreement with Honeck’s remark that “The fourth movement comes back in the world of ambiguity, irony, and sarcasm.” Here lies, for me, the strength of a great composer: To climb to the summit of creative art in the face of simple-minded, yet all-embracing political power, in a way that fools the oppressors, while conveying to all searching souls and intellectual liberal minds what is really meant.

So, in conclusion: Manfred Honeck does not just write about these things, he conveys them, too, with his impressive account of Shostakovich’s fifth symphony. Under his baton, the spirited and passionately playing Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra proves once again what an immensely accomplished orchestral body it is.

I shouldn’t want to finish without a remark on ‘the filler’, Samuel Barber’s Adagio. It now is the number one funeral music, but it wasn’t so much in its original form, the second movement of his String Quartet Op. 11. At least not as I heard it for the first time (Epic LP, Beaux-Arts Quartet, together with David Diamond’s Quartet Op. 4). But with Barber’s orchestration for strings, it got more weight and more drama and hence became more and more appropriate for sad occasions.

Like some don’t know that the original was a string quartet, many will be unfamiliar with the choral a Capella version. Honeck advances the interesting theory that the text Barber used (Agnus Dei of the Roman Catholic Mass) could already have been in his mind when composing his string quartet. Be that as it may, in Honeck’s hands the Adagio gets all the dramatic expression it deserves.

Over the years I have come to realize that I have not always been fair when comparing new SACD releases with older RBCD versions. The reason is that, with the right equipment, the hi-res quality of the SACD plays such an unmistakably positive role in one’s appreciation that it often overshadows the musical content of the older CD. By the same token, it also means that sound quality does matter in that the better definition and the greater dynamic range restore much of the emotional experience one gets in the concert hall. Under one condition though, and that is that the sound engineers get it right. Mark Donahue of Soundmirror, Boston, MA, is such a wizard. He got it right.

With such an exemplarily recorded Fifth, Manfred Honeck, the PSO, and Reference Recording provide us with an obvious contender for the top of our wish list. Can’t think of any better introduction to their forthcoming European tour, starting at the end of August 2017.

Normandy, France

Copyright © 2017 Adrian Quanjer and


Sonics (Multichannel):

stars stars
Comments (19)

Comment by hiredfox - August 18, 2017 (1 of 19)

Good to see that Presto have become a linked supplier at last. they have served us extremely well in the UK for many years and kept going when most others have fallen by the wayside. Undoubtedly one of the best catalogues available anywhere for SACD & CD that are still in print. Fully deserving of your support especially with our beloved pound sterling being given away three for the price of two to allcomers. They'll never let you down or mix up orders.

Comment by john hunter - August 18, 2017 (2 of 19)

I have been using them for many years and now even happier that I can use them and also support this site.

Comment by fausto kantiano - August 20, 2017 (3 of 19)

I've pre-ordered this, but I find the coupling very odd. (and not interested in the Barber)

Comment by hiredfox - September 2, 2017 (4 of 19)

Just a reminder to UK colleagues and any visitors to London this weekend that this wonderful orchestra and their charismatic conductor will be at RAH BBC Proms on Monday evening playing Mahler 4 primarily. They were last here in 2011 and this their latest visit to our shores is being looked forward to with great anticipation.

It has been somewhat of a bumper year for classical music lovers at this year's BBC Proms with many great orchestras attending once again, Gergiev's Mariinsky are here tomorrow and the Vienna Philharmonic next Friday. Yep! We have our tickets for them all.

As for SQ, better even than SACD.

Comment by Jan Arell - September 5, 2017 (5 of 19)

This disc got a thumbs down from Music-Web International. I ordered it a few weeks ago and hope I will like it better when it arrives.

Comment by Adrian Quanjer - September 6, 2017 (6 of 19)

Thanks for the link Jan. I've read it. Everybody has the right to an opinion. And so has Dan Morgan. But I can’t help thinking that here someone has pulled all the stops to shoot Honeck down. Sentence after sentence querying Honeck’s ability to understand the music.

I think that many of us realise that Honeck is not only a remarkable conductor, asking a lot of his musicians, but also a personality with an outspoken conviction that doesn’t necessarily seem to be trying to please. Take for instance his Beethoven fifth. His’ is, in my view, a ‘like’ or ‘loathe’ interpretation. But because of that he steps out of the commonly anticipated line. The line, or fashion, if you like, people believe it should be done. I like his guts. His frequent European concert tours with the Pittsburghers are always met with extraordinary anticipation.

By the way, there is, indeed, ‘bright, steely sound – particularly in the upper strings’, and not just the strings. It’s meant to be that way ‘till your ears hurt’. I can’t find anything ‘dull’ in Honeck’s interpretation. On the contrary.

It would seem to me that Honeck hardly ever goes unnoticed; one way or the other. Music-Web International proves the point.

Comment by Jan Arell - September 7, 2017 (7 of 19)

A much more positive review from Audiophile Audition: "A breathtaking release of crushing power."

Comment by hiredfox - September 7, 2017 (8 of 19)

An orchestra that divides opinion obviously. Having highlighted their appearance at the BBC Proms last Monday, I was rather underwhelmed by their on-stage performance of the Mahler symphony - the brass was far too heavy, the woodwinds a little dry and muted whilst the strings lacked the subtle silkiness that the work demands. The first movement just did not hang together at all.

Perhaps they just had an off night or perhaps it was me who knows although the press critics gave it 3/5 at best?

Comment by Adrian Quanjer - September 7, 2017 (9 of 19)

If we are still on Shostakovich 5, this is what Andrew McGregor thinks: “…it’s impossible not to be impressed by the quality of the orchestral playing and the immersive depth and dynamic range of the recording.” —Andrew McGregor, BBC Radio 3 Summer Record Review.

Comment by William Hecht - September 9, 2017 (10 of 19)

Re: Dan Morgan's review, I know Honeck's not a consensus conductor, but when you start out your review mentioning that you haven't really liked some of his other highly regarded recordings it's not very surprising that you don't like this one either. I think Adrian's comment is right on. The clincher for me is the notion that Sound Mirror has somehow forgotten how to record an orchestra they've recorded very successfully on numerous occasions for Exton, Pentatone, and Reference. Did it not occur to Mr. Morgan that maybe that's the way Honeck intended for things to sound?

Comment by fausto kantiano - September 12, 2017 (11 of 19)

Though I should note I'm no expert on Shostakovich's Fifth and I bought this *because* of Honeck's involvement, this disc seems mighty fine to me, particularly also in the sound department

Comment by fausto kantiano - September 15, 2017 (12 of 19)

rave review at the Arts Desk:

Comment by William Hecht - September 23, 2017 (13 of 19)

I finally got a chance to listen to this twice over the last two days and now know for sure what I could only assume previously. In the places where this recording is "bright" or almost strident that's exactly what Maestro Honeck intended in order to display the rage, fear, and despair inherent in much of the Shostakovich. Elsewhere this 256 DSD production is as stunning and "beautiful" as anything Reference/Soundmirror has ever given us, so QED.

Comment by hiredfox - October 4, 2017 (14 of 19)

I find Honeck's reading of the Fifth symphony to be too studied and academic and not a little eccentric. Is he being deliberately controversial? The booklet notes explains fully his take on his understanding of the work and one accepts his vision or not depending upon one's own understanding from the literature of the composer and his many contradictions as exemplified in this work. Honeck's slow pace frustrates, he is several minutes slower than many interpreters particularly in the opening and closing movements and in my opinion this slows momentum critically.

The orchestral playing is very fine indeed and the recording exemplary as we have come to expect from the Sound Mirror team but overall this is not my first choice for this popular symphony; it is not surprising that opinions have been so diverse.

Barber's Adagio is beautifully played and it is good to have a DSD recorded version. Some colleagues find this coupling to be a bit unsuitable but for me it's fine as in most circumstances one would not play these two pieces in the same 'concert' programme anyway.

Comment by Euell Neverno - October 16, 2017 (15 of 19)

Kreizberg's interpretation, although not the last word on the Shosty 5, conveys more of the emotional content of this work. And, the sound of the strings seems a little strange in parts. I concur with hiredfox on this recording.

Comment by Adrian Quanjer - November 30, 2017 (16 of 19)

Now nominated for 2 Grammy awards: Best Engineered Album, Classical and Best Orchestral Performance.

Comment by Adrian Quanjer - January 18, 2018 (17 of 19)

For Jan Arell (and Dan Morgan): Conductor and Music Director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Manfred Honeck has been awarded the International Classical Music Award 2018 “Artist of the Year“. This has been officially announced today, 18 January 2018 by the ICMA.

Comment by William Hecht - January 19, 2018 (18 of 19)

I've never been a big fan of this kind of award, after all at any given time there are many more outstanding artists than there are years, but at least as far as recordings are concerned I think this one is well deserved. I never play a Honeck disc without being required to check my preconceptions at the door and think about the piece. That's a big part of what makes collecting fun.

Comment by William Hecht - January 29, 2018 (19 of 19)

This won two Grammys last night, for both performance and engineering, though why anyone would watch an American awards show at this point in our national political life is beyond me.