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Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 - Honeck

Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 - Honeck

Reference Recordings  FR-728SACD

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Beethoven: Symphony No. 3
Strauss: Horn Concerto No. 1

William Caballero (horn)
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Manfred Honeck (conductor)


Reference Recordings proudly presents these two iconic works in definitive interpretations from Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, in superb audiophile sound. his hybrid SACD release was recorded in beautiful and historic Heinz Hall, home of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. In his fascinating and scholarly music notes, Maestro Honeck gives us insight into the history of both pieces, and describes how he conducts and interprets each. He reminds us that the 'Eroica' was a bold departure from earlier symphonies, a 'dance symphony with dramatic inventiveness, full of new elements that had never been heard before'. He quotes Beethovens student Ferdinand Ries, who wrote 'Beethoven played recently for me (the 'Eroica') and I believe both heaven and earth must tremble when it is performed'. Honeck puts his own inimitable stamp on this interpretation, giving the listener a chance to experience the novelties of the 'Eroica' as if hearing it for the very first time.

 

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Review by Graham Williams - September 10, 2018

Manfred Honeck's tenure at the helm of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra that began in 2008 has arguably transformed this orchestra from an already first class one into a great one. It is no surprise therefore that the orchestra has extended his contract until 2020. Thanks to the Reference Recordings Fresh! series this transformation can readily be experienced by listeners world wide as some of their choicest performances have been and continue to be captured in superlative high resolution multi-channel sound and issued both on SACD and as downloads.

This latest release, the eighth in the series, pairs Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 Op 55 (“Eroica”) with the Horn Concerto No.1 of Richard Strauss. At a first glance this might appear an odd combination, but coupling a concerto written for the most heroic instrument of the orchestra with Beethoven's “heroic” symphony – both works incidentally sharing the key of E flat major – makes complete sense.

After more then 200 years Beethoven's nine symphonies still remain the cornerstone of the orchestral repertory and a challenge to any conductor's interpretive powers. It is generally accepted that the more powerful rhythmic and dynamic aspects of Beethoven's temperament are revealed in the odd numbered symphonies, so having garnered considerable critical praise for his accounts of Beethoven's Symphonies 5 and 7 Beethoven: Symphonies 5 & 7 - Honeck it is logical that Manfred Honeck should now bring his considerable musical intellect to bear on Symphony 3.

In a brilliantly argued essay in the accompanying liner notes 'Thoughts on the “Eroica”: A New Path Forward' the conductor not only provides a historical perspective to the Symphony's genesis but an exhaustive and detailed analysis of, and justification for, his own interpretative decisions. Whether or not one agrees with all these decisions is a matter for each individual to decide for themselves, but listeners to this recording will surely welcome the thought-provoking insights Honeck provides.

From the Symphony's two opening chords it is clear that this is to be a fleet but never rushed account of the 1st movement (Allegro con brio). The playing has both lightness, grace and muscular strength in equal measure and, while tempi exhibit a degree of flexibility, a sense of forward momentum is never lacking. The influence of period practice is immediately evident from the orchestral layout with its antiphonal violins and timpani played with hard sticks while Honeck's care in balancing his forces ensures that the splendid wind playing is never swamped by the strings. Unlike some performances on disc he observes the exposition repeat much to the work's advantage.

In contrast the 'Marcia funebre' that follows is given a reading of considerable weight and drama and delivered at an unhurried tempo appropriate to the music's grief laden demeanour. Honeck's view that this movement is the centre of the Symphony is underlined by the wide range of dynamics he employs. The notably rich string playing, blazing horns and powerful timpani provide a monumental depth of feeling missing from many small scale or period performances.

The Scherzo is crisply articulated at a brisk dancing tempo while an especially delightful feature is the phrasing by the superbly secure Pittsburgh horns in the trio section that gives it a real feel of the hunt.

A combination of fire and precision mark the opening of the 'Finale' and Honeck's flexibility of tempi is once again apparent throughout this movement. The variations on the 'Creatures of Prometheus' theme are deliciously pointed and the individual character of each one fully illuminated by the marvellously alert orchestral playing and the clarity of the recording. Some, perhaps, might question Honeck's expansive reading of the long 'poco andante' section (from 6.06), but it flows with an eloquence and nobility that is most moving. The presto coda crackles with furious energy and brings Honeck's thrilling and illuminating account of the Symphony to a triumphant conclusion.

Richard Strauss's 1st Horn Concerto was written in 1882-83 by the then 19-year-old composer for his father Franz, the principal horn player of the Munich Court Orchestra. Though heavily indebted to Schumann, Brahms, Mendelssohn and Weber it shows little indication of the composer's future direction and the world would have to wait sixty years before a second horn concerto appeared. The incomparable Dennis Brain made the first recording of the work in 1947 and again in 1956. Others soon followed but surprisingly this is the first high resolution recording of the Concerto in its orchestral garb, though the version with piano accompaniment is already available on SACD.

The concerto is a real gem, especially when played as magnificently as here by William Caballero, a horn virtuoso of the highest calibre. He gives a beautifully nuanced performance of the work in which his beautiful legato playing in the central 'Andante' is matched by fearless bravura and amazing agility in the outer movements. Honeck's accompaniment also deserves mention for its deft support of the soloist, though in the Rondo Finale some might question the decision for the marked tempo reduction (between 2.52 and 3.20).

The recordings are taken from concerts given in Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts in Pittsburgh. (The Beethoven October 27-29, 2017 and the Strauss September 22-24, 2012). As usual the experienced Soundmirror team have engineered both works with remarkable veracity. The sound is both warm yet detailed and with just the right degree of hall reverberation.

This latest Fresh! Release from Reference Recordings marks another spectacular success for Manfred Honeck and the superb musicians of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. It is one that even the most jaded of collectors of Beethoven symphonies should investigate without delay while Strauss aficionados will need no urging to do the same.

Unreservedly recommended.

Copyright © 2018 Graham Williams and HRAudio.net

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Review by Adrian Quanjer - September 10, 2018

One more ‘Eroica’? Not quite. This is an exceptional account which doesn’t necessarily supplant your cherished favourites, because the reason for wanting to have it is of a completely different nature: This performance sheds an unexpected new light on probably the biggest war horse of all times. Exaggerated? Absolutely! Maestro Honeck, known for his thought-provoking ideas and performances, tells us in his personal introductory notes ‘why’. Two hundred years after its première people have gotten used to the characteristics of the ‘Eroica’. In order to give today’s listener the same shock as the audience at the 1825 Vienna ‘Uraufführung’ experienced, added accentuation and dynamics are needed to recreate that same sensation. Honeck succeeds on all counts!

Moreover, this is not just music making of the highest order by all concerned: The conductor, the orchestra and the recording engineers. Normally I would listen to excerpts of a new disc to get a first overall impression, before delving deeper into it. But this live recording leaves such an irresistible impression that, once hooked, I could not stop listening. And once the final movement finished I hoped there wouldn’t be an instant eager beaver Bravo! customer in the audience, spoiling the magic.

What I appreciate so much with Honeck is that he describes in his notes in minute detail how he approaches a score. Whether you agree or disagree, one can read what he wants his musicians to play and why he, in this particular case, willingly requires them to reinforce certain content, like for instance ‘the use of radical harmonies and sharp dissonance’ where (towards the end of the first movement) ‘E and F halve- ones sound together’, which at the premiere must have been an enormous shock to the public. Moreover, the brisk pace and forward thrust of this movement underlines what he says and feels as ‘A new path forward’. His account is not for the HIP adepts. It gets hold of you and immerses you in an impressive sound spectrum. I must admit that it gave me every now and then the shivers. And I can hardly think of any other orchestra being able to follow Honeck so sublimely and so punctually than the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, right now probably the best of the Big Five in the United States.

I’ve always maintained that Ludwig van Beethoven is more classical than romantic. Honeck sees it differently, calling Beethoven, and his third symphony in particular, ‘a key to the romantic period’. And indeed, the second ‘Marcia Funebre’ is laden to the brim with emotion. Not the tear jerking variety, but of the deeply moving kind. In a certain way it is a total exploit of the possibilities the score offers a Music Director who says what he does and, believe me, it won’t leave you unaffected.

In Honeck’s vision brass play an important role, too, and that is noticeable throughout, in particular the horns in the third movement. Spectacular playing and ditto recording, allowing me to turn up the volume as loud as my system can handle (no close neighbours!). With this volume I could from time to time detect the presence of an audience, but nothing to distract from the performance. It also says something about the sound engineering having produced such wide dynamics without the slightest distortion. Mark Donahue c.s. of Soundmirror, Boston MA is your guarantor in this department.

The dynamics heighten the emotion in the last movement, where the Maestro pulls all the orchestral stops to build up tension by changing intensity between the various dances, putting them into a an alternating buoyant and boisterous coherence to arrive at an exciting and jubilant Finale.

We have here a combination of the large orchestral precision of a Karajan, the chamber like energy of a Järvi and… the novelty of a Honeck. It’s solid, it’s impressive, it’s in one word: Heroic. Whether or not one likes Honeck’s often outspoken approach, this a ‘must listen’ and you may get hooked, just like me.

With Strauss we enter different waters, and I was pleased to note that Soundmirror left sufficient time to either enable a mind reset or switch off for listening later. This concerto doesn’t have the same emotional impact as the Eroica has. Strauss’ first horn concerto is more a crafty, juvenile showpiece of a not even 20 year young composer paying tribute to the horn, with the orchestra mostly in an accompanying role.

I for one love the horn as it can sound whispering, soothing, blooming, triumphant, glorious and for all the tricks you can do with it, provided the player can handle his instrument. Before listening I recommend reading the notes and more specifically the discussion between the soloist, William Caballero, principal horn player of the Pittsburgh Symphony, and Manfred Honeck, under whose supervision this virtuoso concerto is brought to life.

Right from the start there can be no doubt: Caballero is a magician, knowing every single tube in his horn. Rather than Mendelssohn or Schumann, as suggested by the liner notes, this concerto reminds me of Carl Maria von Weber (his elegant Horn concerto Op. 45). Here, too, the horn clearly is the focal center, giving Cabalero all the room to share his devilish virtuosity with the (live) audience.

On several counts, and also because there is no SACD alternative, I consider this horn concerto to be an unmissable addition to the catalogue.

Blang-le-Château,
Normandy, France.

Copyright © 2018 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net

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Comments (9)
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Comment by hiredfox - October 1, 2018 (1 of 9)

Having noted the glowing reviews of Graham and Adrian and as an ardent collector of their recordings, I remain baffled by the deeply unimpressive performance of Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony players at the BBC Proms in 2017.

You might put it down to an 'off night' or 'jet lag' or you could argue that the sound engineers have been very good at juggling average performances into sonic masterpieces.

Never-the-less they will be given the benefit of the doubt and yet another recording of "Eroica" will be added to our collection.

Comment by Bruce Zeisel - October 4, 2018 (2 of 9)

However it was achieved, this is a recording that in my opinion is not to be missed. Much here you may not agree with, but none of it is boring believe me! It certainly has opened new frontiers of musical thought for me!

Comment by Bruce Zeisel - October 5, 2018 (3 of 9)

Hired Fox, how do you characterize the sound of the venue for the proms?

Comment by John Broggio - October 7, 2018 (4 of 9)

Excuse me for jumping in but in one word: dreadful!

On a more positive note: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-45761820

Comment by Adrian Quanjer - October 7, 2018 (5 of 9)

Just like the audience at the premiere!

Comment by hiredfox - October 8, 2018 (6 of 9)

Oh my, Bruce, where to start!

The Royal Albert Hall is huge, elliptical with a very high domed ceiling and lacks even the basic design ingredients for satisfactory acoustical performance. A great deal of effort has been made over the years to try and improve things, famously the fixing of 'mushrooms' into the dome to stop the infamous "echo" but even today the acoustics leave a very great deal to be desired. It is simply a lousy venue. Earlier audiences could hear the music and the slightly delayed echo from the dome at the same time! I remember it all too well having spent some youthful years just across the road.

The venue seats 5000 people in tiers almost to the dome, audiences cover most of the walls so there is virtually no reflection of sound. You have to be very careful in seat selection to get even a half decent presentation of the music. Orchestras sound very quiet because of the huge void space and the sound is directional because of the lack of reflectivity from the walls so the sound is all a bit flat and one dimensional depending upon where you sit. In many positions coherence is low and the sound very 'dry'.

I understand the basis of your question but the disappointing 2017 Honeck performance that I alluded to had more to do with the orchestra and conductor not being quite together on the night.

John maybe has summed this up more eloquently!

Comment by Ruth Hartling - October 23, 2018 (7 of 9)

Hired Fox, I've been in the audience for a few of the Pittsburgh Symphony's recordings (though not these two, sadly), and no sound transformation was needed to make those performances special. The only magic involved was to remove nearly all of the audience noise, which is always considerable at Heinz Hall. The first time that I arrived at a concert to find the hall wired up, I thought they were insane to record during peak flu season with a predominantly elderly audience, and I was shocked to hear the final result. The Pittsburgh Symphony doesn't always perform at quite this level, but who does? They're good enough to make an annual subscription an absolute joy. I'm just sorry you had to hear them on a bad day.

Comment by hiredfox - October 24, 2018 (8 of 9)

Thanks for the feedback Ruth. Everyone has a bad day once in a while and it might just as easily have been me on that occasion.

Sadly, in my experience most audiences at subscription concerts of the major orchestras tend to be from the coughing / wheezing generation - Generation Zzz ?

I recall some two or three years ago that we experienced an epidemic of noisy winter snuffles at Bournemouth more so it seemed than was usual. BSO concerts are frequently broadcast live by the BBC over here and the interruptions were very clearly and constantly audible and no doubt extremely annoying to radio listeners across the country. A number of us suggested that the hall staff should check that the air conditioning systems were working as they should be and do you know what, that fixed the problem almost immediately?

In real life I am one of the world's most tolerant of people but in the concert hall a darker side emerges and any slight interruption, be it a cough, wheeze or dropped programme drives me nuts.

As for the Pittsburgh Symphony and Maestro Honeck, I am looking forward to the day when they next grace the stage at the BBC Proms at the RAH. In the meantime this recording has joined the many others made during their exciting partnership in our collection.

Comment by William Hecht - October 26, 2018 (9 of 9)

Exactly why I no longer attend concerts. No one deserves to sit next to me while my oxygen concentrator chugs and wheezes its way through the evening, not even the guy who unwraps his cough drop right in the middle of the ppp passage and later starts screaming bravo before the last notes have died away. Thank The Lord for so many fine new recordings, even if the pace has slowed to a little more than a trickle. For a sonic and visual experience bluray is a big advance, and takes up some of the slack. I just wish it received some coverage here.