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Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 - Honeck

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 - Honeck

Reference Recordings  FR–741SACD

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Beethoven: Symphony No. 9

Christina Landshamer, soprano
Jennifer Johnson Cano, mezzo-soprano
Werner Güra, tenor
Shenyang, bass-baritone
Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Manfred Honeck, music director


Reference Recordings® proudly presents Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in a new and definitive interpretation from Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. We are excited that this new release is part of the Orchestra’s 125th Anniversary joy! Other Orchestra events will include a weekend musical celebration and the release of a digital program on February 27, the 125th anniversary date of their very first concert.

This album was recorded in beautiful and historic Heinz Hall, home of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, in superb audiophile sound.

Maestro Honeck honors us again with his meticulous music notes, in which he gives us great insight into his unique interpretation as well as the history and musical structure of Beethoven’s most famous symphony.

This release is the eleventh in the highly acclaimed Pittsburgh Live! series of multi­channel hybrid SACD releases on the FRESH! imprint from Reference Recordings. This series has received GRAMMY® Nominations in 2015, 2016, 2018, 2019 and 2020. Its recording of Shostakovich’s Symphony No.5 /Barber Adagio for Strings won the 2018 GRAMMY® Awards for Best Orchestral Performance and Best Engineered Classical Album.

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Review by Graham Williams - January 28, 2021

The majority of the ten previous releases by Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra for Reference Recordings Fresh! label have featured the music of composers most familiar to, and popular with, the concert going public – Beethoven, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Strauss, Bruckner et al. Inevitably, this has brought each of them them into direct competition with a cornucopia of recordings from from the past, all vying for attention by collectors. Nevertheless, the brilliance and charisma of Honeck’s conducting, his unique interpretive insights into the works he performs and the manner in which they are realised by the magnificent orchestra of which he has been Music Director for the past ten years, have resulted in each of these recordings moving effortlessly and justifiably into the select group of top recommendations for their respective repertoire.

The icing on the cake, of course, has been the stunningly realistic sound quality consistently achieved by the Soundmirror recording team of engineer Mark Donahue and producer Dirk Sobotka. Their longtime familiarity with the acoustics of Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh and close collaboration with the conductor in matters of post-concert editing has ensured an enthralling experience for both audiophiles and those seeking great music making.

A glance at his extensive discography indicates that Honeck has long been associated with the Austro-German repertoire that naturally places Beethoven at its core. His survey of the composer’s Symphonies for Reference Recordings has, so far, focused on the odd numbered works with outstanding accounts of symphonies 3, 5 and 7 to which this superb new recording of the Ninth can now be added.

As has become customary with these Pittsburgh releases, Manfred Honeck has contributed an engagingly readable essay in the liner notes entitled “Beethoven a Musical Manifesto for all Time” in which he begins by giving a concise account of the origins of the Ninth Symphony. He then goes on to provide fascinating movement by movement details of the interpretive decisions he has made regarding, tempi, dynamics, phrasing etc. I suspect, for many of listeners, some of these nuances may go unnoticed, yet there is no doubt that collectively they contribute to the unequivocal integrity of Honeck’s performance.

Honeck’s Beethoven as evinced from the previous releases is lithe and muscular; qualities that are at once evident in his incandescent account of the symphony’s opening movement. The conductor’s nod to period practice (violins divided antiphonally and timpani played with hard sticks) yields dividends throughout the performance while his control of dynamics in this movement is especially impressive. The scherzo that follows is bracingly energetic with marvellously crisp timpani to the fore, while the trio section, though taken at a rapid pace, is perfectly articulated by the excellent PSO woodwinds. As always, clarity and precision are a hallmark of Honeck’s performances

The slow movement – marked ‘Adagio Molto e Cantabile’– is exquisitely played and though Honeck’s swift tempo (with a timing of 12’.34” it is faster than some period performances!) may be of concern for some listeners, there is a natural and expressive unfolding of the long melodic lines and no lack of opulent lyricism in his shaping of the variations. The Finale generates plenty of anticipatory excitement in the opening orchestral recitatives and if perhaps bass-baritone Shenyang’s forthright delivery of “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne” sounds a touch strained at the start, he quickly settles down. The other three soloists, soprano Christina Landshamer, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano and tenor Werner Güra, do not disappoint while the large and well drilled chorus – the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh – sing Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’ with unbridled enthusiasm and excellent diction. The remarkable virtuosity displayed by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra throughout is beyond praise, not least in the jubilant final bars of the symphony where the conductor tells us “Here, I have tried to go to the limit of playability” and he certainly succeeds!

The recording was compiled from live performances given at Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (June 6-9, 2019) and once again the Soundmirror engineering on this 5.0 multi-channel hybrid SACD is unimpeachable.

As with most orchestras worldwide the devastating Covid-19 pandemic will have impacted on the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s future concert and recording schedules, but we are fortunate to be able to experience in wonderful high resolution sound this vibrant and electrifying account of Beethoven’s final symphonic masterpiece.

Warmly recommended.

Copyright © 2021 Graham Williams and HRAudio.net

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Comments (8)
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Comment by Desertpilot - February 12, 2021 (1 of 8)

The release is available today and I downloaded the multichannel version from "Native DSD" in the original recording format, DSD 256. As an aside, I had a discussion with Jonas at Native DSD and they do not up-sample the SACD (DSD 64) version. Instead, they get the original DXD master and "remodulate" it (the same process used to create the SACD version) but in the various DSD sample rates offered for sale. When I download, I personally prefer to choose the original recording format's sample rate.

This recording is already generating some controversy over Maestro Honeck's approach to an "all to familiar" work. Personally, I found it refreshing and engaging compared to the dozen or so other recordings I own. You may opt to listen without influence by Maestro Honeck's notes. I chose to read them first. I found his attention to detail and his reading of Beethoven's historical record convincing. You may disagree. But, his thinking is well documented which, I believe, makes his decisions worthy of consideration.

Listening to the piece was a true pleasure. We know Soundmirror does an incredible post production effort. After reading Maestro Honeck's notes, it's not all Soundmirror that makes this a joy to hear. Maestro Honeck clearly notes how he uses instrument volume and timing to organize all the various instruments in to one cohesive whole. What we get are clearly delineated instruments that compliment one another and yet remain distinct. This made it fresh and engaging to me. The bottom line is that producing a great symphony that will compete with so many others is a challenge. This one, whatever you may think of it, stands out. It is definitely not "the same old thing".

Marcus DiBenedetto
Las Vegas, NV

Comment by Desertpilot - February 14, 2021 (2 of 8)

I can't edit my earlier comment so I will offer this new one.

I've listened to this Symphony again, especially movement 4 that some would say is too fast. I disagree. There is emotional impact to varying the tempo. I know I was emotionally engaged throughout, "tears to my eyes" engaged. The last few minutes of movement 4 includes the soloists with breathtaking vocals followed by fast crescendos and sudden slower, deeper and more expansive orchestra. At the very end was a fast crescendo that cannot be ignored that will get you "out of your seat" clapping.

Marcus DiBenedetto
Las Vegas, NV

Comment by john hunter - February 14, 2021 (3 of 8)

Looking forward to getting this. Honeck's previous Beethoven has been quite thought provoking .

Comment by Adrian Quanjer - February 16, 2021 (4 of 8)

I watched David Hurwitz’s video review of this recording. I was not impressed. Apart from his self-confident style, I think he is wrong in saying that “the music has to speak for itself”. That’s for less gifted conductors. Just playing the notes, whilst observing all the markings. It is not the first time his outspoken and presumptuous views are pushed with great aplomb. I haven’t forgotten his one-sided views of Mozart/Brautigam/Willens (BIS). One may or may not agree with Honeck, but he studies the score, tells you what he thinks, and carries it out accordingly. Nothing wrong with that. Ever heard of interpretation? In my view (I have one, too) we are not dealing here with Honeck’s narcissistic views.

Comment by Graham Williams - February 16, 2021 (5 of 8)

Well said Adrian!

I confess I do enjoy watching and reading David Hurwitz's dogmatic and often controversial reviews, but take them with a pinch of salt (unless, of course they happen to agree with mine ;)

Comment by DYB - February 17, 2021 (6 of 8)

I'm personally not a David Hurwitz fan...

I also purchased the original format of this recording from NativeDSD and already listened to it. I'm still trying to decide if I liked it. That may be is the wrong way of saying it, I did not dislike it. There are elements that I found wholly original and fascinating. Many of Honeck's rhythmic choices and other ideas in the first movement made me perk up; some parts of the music I've never heard other conductors emphasize the way he does. The second movement was a bit underwhelming, just not enough bite for my personal taste. The slow movement was the most interesting of all - most conductors approach it (and it is one of the most glorious slow movements in the history of the symphonic form) as an elegy, it's often made me tear up. I found Honeck's approach to be almost romantic. Like this was a love-song, not a heart-break song. I'd never considered this movement this way before. I don't know if I agree with the take, but it is interesting. The final movement was fine...but honestly didn't make much of an impression overall. Very fine signing from the soloists, although it seems like the basso - Shenyang, whose career I've been following for some years - is beginning to develop a wobble...

The recording is spectacular as always and the playing, and the choral singing, are all superb.

So overall a very interesting new take on the 9th and one I'll listen to again.

Comment by Darryl Roberson - February 19, 2021 (7 of 8)

We had a brief online discussion with the audio engineer at NativeDSD about the various formats. Based on his description, one could argue the DXD edit master is the one to have. After our discussion, he said Soundmirror were going to correct the booklet and remove the erroneous statement that post-production is done in DSD256. Also, he decided to make the 32-bit wav version of the DXD edit master available on NativeDSD for the first time. Here's what he said:

"Reference Recordings Fresh series are recorded by Soundmirror, and all but a portion of one album are recorded in DSD256. All these recordings are subsequently post processed, including editing, in DXD on a Pyramix DAW. The resulting DXD file is the album's edited master, which is uploaded to NativeDSD's ftp label server.

The two stereo and surround DXD edited masters are in the form of proprietary continuous 32 bit WAV files known as an MTFF (Merging Technologies File Format), which includes the track timing markers. These 32 bit PCM interstage edited masters are then run through Pyramix Album Publishing, producing the individual separate tracks in PCM 352.8KHz/24 FLAC, DSD256, DSD128, DSD64, plus a PCM 352.8KHz/32 WAV copy. I use that DXD/PCM 352.8KHz/32 WAV to produce the DSD512 in HQPlayer Pro.

Since the edited master IS the original generation of the assembled/edited takes and post processed sweetened recording, the Pyramix Album Publishing process of producing the deliverables is the most direct and least invasive process available. Whether the DXD FLAC, or the highest bitrate DSD that a customer's DAC can support is chosen, it is IMO, completely dependent on the customer's DAC type and conversion process. For DAC's which directly convert a PCM sample based stream of digital values, like a ladder DAC, then the DXD FLAC is optimal. For DAC's with Sigma-Delta modulator conversion, by and large, the DSD format is optimal."

Comment by Desertpilot - February 21, 2021 (8 of 8)

Darryl Roberson. Thank you so much for this additional information. It's great to know exactly what we get with our downloads. I've tried streaming and I don't like it (Amazon HD and Primephonic). Many prefer the SACD disc. Not me (although I do have an extensive SACD disc library). I prefer using JRiver to catalog music on my NAS plus I add extensive "tags". While JRiver does convert to PCM, I download DSD 256 in hopes that I can afford a DAC sometime in the future.

Marcus DiBenedetto
Las Vegas, NV