Brahms: Symphony No. 4 - Honeck
Reference Recordings FR-744SACD
Classical - Orchestral
Brahms: Symphony No. 4
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Manfred Honeck (conductor)
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Review by Adrian Quanjer - October 17, 2021
When discussing the best orchestral size to perform Brahms’ symphonies, there seem to be two distinct schools of appreciation. Those who prefer the smaller size, having history on their side. Brahms’ fourth symphony was premiered by the Meininger Hofkappelle with Hans von Bülow directing. On the other hand, there are many, and perhaps even many more than ‘those’ who believe in the bolder approach by orchestras having the modern full symphonic complement.
Both views have something to go for. The greater transparency of, say, Andrew Manze with the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra Brahms: 4 Symphonies - Manze as opposed to the full dynamic power of Marek Janowski conducting - indeed - the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Brahms: Symphony No. 4 - Janowski. If I were to speculate what Brahms would have done should he have had a larger orchestra than the 60 or so Meiningen Court Orchestra players at his disposal, he might have chosen the latter option. With this new release the ‘bold is beautiful’ music lovers, will be able to test the correctness of their preference and, adversely, the ‘lean’ crowd may be tempted to readjust to what Brahms might have done had he been offered the opportunity to entrust his final symphony to a larger body.
Every new Pittsburgh release in the Reference Recordings Fresh! Series can hardly go unnoticed. Surely not as long as Maestro Honeck’s personal ideas are so faithfully implemented by its seasoned members and the result equally faithful documented by Sound Mirror Inc.
Before going into the heart of the matter, a word of warning. My first listen was based on a stereo FLAC file. Stay clear of it. Knowing how well other releases in this series came across, it was a huge deception. The sound was harsh and muddied in the tutti; the flutes pierced my ears. When I finally got hold of the original, everything changed from dark to light. Heaven opened up. Putting the volume further up than usual (and the quality can easily have it) the music instantly drew every bit of emotion out of my mind. This performance is so stunning that it deserves and needs to be played at the best possible resolution your (surround) music system can handle! It’s (almost) like sitting in the Hall allowing you to listen to the music instead of being disturbed by sound coming from the speakers.
I assume that any serious listener is by now aware or even convinced that Honeck is not a run-of-the-mill craftsman. He has a view of his own to contribute to the world of classical music. Not everyone seems to like that, or at least not always, but for me, it is like Dr. Kurt List, head of the now-defunct Westminster recordings said about the legendary conductor Hermann Scherchen (courtesy Naxos Records): “With Scherchen the result is never boring, nor does it leave you indifferent. If you think of the many colourless conductors around the world, I believe that one has to take Scherchen as he is: a voluntarily personal stylist who nevertheless always throws an interesting light on things, even if this light is wrong!’ Isn’t that what is generally known as ‘interpretation’. Some may quarrel about speed, speed variations, accentuations, and all that, but I find that what Honeck says and what he does is always spell-binding. With Honeck it is consistently in accordance with what he lectures. The full lecture is given in his lengthy and detailed personal notes in the booklet.
I compared Honeck’s reading with that of Janowski, 13 years ago with the same orchestra, and with the same Mark Donahue at the recording console. Janowski's interpretation almost made me agree with those who prefer the refinement of Andrew Manze or the restraint mastery of Paavo Järvi with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, my all-time favourite chamber version. However fine in objective terms, Janowski comes across as spirit & colourless in comparison to Honeck’s emotional profoundness in the second, and the sweeping excitement in the third movement, combined with the sheer ‘power of sadness’ as Brahms called it, in the first and final movement.
Summing it up: Maestro Honeck and his musicians have done it again. Massive it is, but controlled with a perfect balance between the various instrumental groups, and as such as transparent as with a smaller outfit, yet miles more impressive. I know of only a few music directors who can do that. This is now by far my first choice.
Need I say more?
Yes, In my excitement I nearly forgot to say that MacMillan’s Larghetto for Orchestra (recorded live) is another example, and a brilliantly crafted one at that, of a modern composer’s renewed interest in saying things in yesteryear’s proven language, without precluding anything of today’s values. In fact, the melancholy of his Larghetto is of all times. Commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in honor of the tenth anniversary of Manfred Honeck as Music Director, its opening lament and mourning (miserere) turn into hope and optimism
Blangy-le-Château, Normandy, France.
Copyright © 2021 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net
Review by Graham Williams - November 10, 2021
Though the pandemic has seriously curtailed both the concert and recording schedules of many orchestras world-wide, some recording companies have had earlier performances ‘in the can’ awaiting release. Such is the case with this latest Reference Recordings issue from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and their long time musical director Manfred Honeck.
On his recordings for Reference over the past ten or so years, Honeck has continued to demonstrate unfailingly his ability to revitalize and illuminate many of the greatest, but for some collectors, over-familiar, mainstays of the classical repertoire. The 4th Symphony of Brahms is a case in point as there are countless versions on disc of what is generally acknowledged to be the finest of the composer’s symphonic canon, and a work that lends itself to a myriad of valid interpretations.
In the fulsome liner notes with this SACD, the conductor provides an exceptionally informative essay that begins by placing Brahms and his works in their historical context. He then moves on to consider the diverse reactions to the symphony from the composer’s contemporaries, his friend Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, Hans von Bülow and Hugo Wolf. Finally he provides his own personal insights into the work.
Honeck’s account of the score displays his usual fastidious attention to detail and an overall conception of the symphony that is immensely satisfying. In the first two movements he adopts generally flowing speeds that allow appreciation of his orchestra’s cultivated sonority.
The third movement is taken at an unusually fast and exhilarating pace that emphasises the contrast between this and the other three more profound movements. In the liner notes Honeck writes “I see this entire movement as a brilliant, multifaceted, fun fireworks display demanding the greatest virtuosity from the full orchestra”. Thanks to the players exuberant energy and crisp articulation this is a performance that really sets the pulse racing.The passacaglia finale is accorded a magnificent reading thanks to the conductor’s purposeful forward drive and his meticulous observance of Brahms’ dynamic markings.
The playing of the PSO throughout is, needless to say, outstanding in its unanimity of attack, flexibility and chording combined with wonderfully true intonation and tonal homogeneity. When, as here, this is combined with Honeck’s clear and purposeful reading, the performance is a formidable one, even in the context of the considerable competition, not least from the orchestra’s earlier 2009 live account of the symphony with Marek Janowski.
The companion piece to the Brahms on this SACD is James MacMillan’s ‘Larghetto for Orchestra’. It was commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra to celebrate the occasion of the tenth anniversary of Manfred Honeck’s tenure as Music Director. As the composer explains in the liner notes, the piece is an orchestral arrangement of a ‘Miserere’ written in 2009 for The Sixteen and their conductor Harry Christophers.
As is well known, spirituality and faith are of prime importance to both MacMillan and Manfred Honeck (both are devout Roman Catholics) so this solemn, contemplative and achingly beautiful work does not seem out of place in a celebratory context.
The sustained and richly melodic string lines in the opening section are impeccably delivered by Pittsburgh players while the brass section, whether in their sonorous chordal passages or as soloists (horn, trumpet and trombone) intoning their cantilenas with a timeless devotional quality, demonstrate their eloquent artistry. Macmillan has composed a piece that undoubtedly has immediate audience appeal and Manfred Honeck’s eloquent performance of this impressive composition on this SACD is unlikely to be bettered.
The two works on this SACD were recorded live in DSD256 and post-produced in DXD 352.8kHz/32 bit in the orchestra’s home - Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts, Pittsburgh. The MacMillan piece stems from its world premiere performance in October 2017 while the Brahms symphony is taken from concerts given in April 2018. As always the Soundmirror, Boston, recording team have applied their long standing familiarity with the venue’s acoustic to deliver a recording quality of incomparable clarity and warmth in both works.
Whether this release represents the start of a complete Brahms cycle for Honeck and his orchestra remains to be seen, but discerning collectors should find this recording a more than worthy addition to their shelves. In short this is another unmissable release from Reference Recordings.
Copyright © 2021 Graham Williams and HRAudio.net