Strauss: Ein Heldenleben / Fletcher: Clarinet Concerto / Verdi: La Forza Del Destino - Honeck

Strauss: Ein Heldenleben / Fletcher: Clarinet Concerto / Verdi: La Forza Del Destino - Honeck

Exton  OVCL-00338

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral

Richard Strauss: Ein Heldenleben, Fletcher: Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra, Verdi: "La forza del Destino" Overture

Michael Rusinek (clarinet)
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Manfred Honeck (conductor)

Support this site by purchasing from these vendors using the paid links below.
As an Amazon Associate earns from qualifying purchases.


Add to your wish list | library


4 of 6 recommend this, would you recommend it?  yes | no

DSD recording
Reviews (1)

Review by John Miller - June 13, 2010

This live concert recording, dating from 9-11th May 2008, features the excellent Pittsburgh Orchestra with its then new Music Director, Manfred Honeck. It has apparently been available in the US for some time, but only recently arrived in Europe. Potential buyers should be aware that applause appears at the end of each track.

Usually one can sit and concentrate on the music from an SACD, but with Exton I have found a wide variation in the style/quality of their eingineering. This sound from this disc, over many hearings, has been extraordinarily distracting in my efforts to get to the disc's musical heart. Virtually every time I listened to it, the recording seemed to have different characteristics, much of this variability related to the precise listening volume. At my normal listening level, my first impression was that the multichannel track sounded like a mono recording of an orchestra towards the back of a vast, foggy hall - despite the rear and centre channels carrying a barely audible signal (generalised sounds of an orchestra heard from the end of a very long tunnel), which is often the Exton house style. The surround channels add nothing of significance to the listening experience.

Advancing the volume gradually brought the instruments forward through the foggy ambience, with the sound stage widening somewhat but never with convincing perspective or stability, and the sound seemed to lack warmth in the mid and lower mid-range. At more realistic volumes, greater warmth appears (i.e. one can hear the violas and upper cellos better), but the basses are woolly and often boom. Other reviewers (elsewhere) of this issue have also commented on its problematic sonics - including one who even found the recording far too dry! The applause also sounds somehow artificial, with all clapping coming close-up from the front, and odd claps leaping out of context - very unsettling! Eventually I settled on the Stereo track, which had better balance and somewhat more consistent sound, although some likely patch edits suddenly seemed to send the strings back into a much more ambient space - possibly Heinz Hall without the audience.

Honeck opens with Verdi's Overture (Sinfonia) to 'La Forza del Destino', one of the few Verdi operas with an overture rather than a short prelude. It was put together rather hastily to replace the original prelude after the first performance, and rather shows this in its string of contrasting episodes. Notably, it begins with two sets of three loud warning notes from trombones and cimbasso (a hybrid between bass trombone tuba and invented by Verdi). Probably tubas were used on this occasion, as often with modern orchestras.

Honeck appears to be making the overture an opening crowd-pleaser, and takes it very fast, thus reducing the menacing call of Verdi's signals to peremptory trombone blasts (these warning signals appear elsewhere in the overture). One reviewer (from another site) mistakenly congratulated Honeck on following Verdi's alleged 'Presto' instruction for the overture. This is incorrect; the tempo for the first bars is merely Allegro, and the brass chords are minims. The restless violin theme which immediately follows is marked 'Allegro agitato presto', where the presto is not a tempo indication but an encouragement to articulate crisply. Listen to Karajan (RBCD) for a much more baleful opening, and far more tension and drive from Verdi's nervy hairpin crescendos in the main string theme. Honeck's hasty start leads to drastic gear-changes at the many slower, lyrical episodes. Karajan and the BPO provide a much better integrated view of the overture by not rushing it so. However, Honeck does achieve his goal and is rewarded by a very enthusiastic outburst of audience applause.

Composer Alan Fletcher (President and CEO of the Aspen School and Music Festival) received a commission from the Pittsburgh Orchestra, specifically for a work for their principal clarinettist, Martin Rusinek. Asked by Fletcher what he had in mind, Rusinek replied "the concerto that Barber never wrote for the clarinet". It would require a very brave and self-effacing composer indeed to attempt such a work, and the resulting première of Fletcher's new three-movement concerto is recorded on this disc.

Although Fletcher does not have anything like Barber's melodic gift, this is an interesting piece which does bear repeated hearings, although I found it often lacked contrast and dramatic fire. Despite some opening pungent harmonies, it is mainly tonal and lyrical, indeed pastoral in a Vaughan-Williams sort of vein in its slow movement. The finale I found rather disappointing, starting in a rather slow version of 'Presto' (this time) with a series of rising scales being exchanged between soloist and orchestra. It quickly looses momentum and thus sparkle, however. Still, I'm sure that clarinettists will welcome the new concerto; they are not exactly common in the repertoire. Rusinek's fine account was somewhat disturbed by changes in recording perspective; at times it was difficult to distinguish between the soloist and the orchestral clarinettist. The oddly muffled applause was polite rather than enthusiastic.

Honeck shows signs of being a Strauss interpreter of considerable talent. Unfortunately the orchestra was earthbound for the crucial first few bars of Heldenleben's infamous opening, a real trap for players. However, gravity was eventually overcome and the Hero's theme finally took wing impressively. Strauss' critics were well characterised, variously acerbic or grumpy, their wind polyphony knitted nicely, and concertmaster Andrés Cárdenes' solo violin had sweetness, sentimentality (as indicated by the composer) and fantasy. At times the opaque and flat sound-stage got in the way, particularly in the big climaxes, which were (at a good listening level) overbearing and verging on distortion. A dead-sounding bass drum with a mike too close did not help. Honeck made the affectionate quotations from Don Quixote, Till Eulenspiel, Don Juan and many other sources very clear in "The Hero's Works of Peace". In the final section, Strauss' picture of retirement was taken very slowly, almost a minute slower than Luisi or Janssons, but this was done with great feeling and superb control from the orchestra. Alas, the final swelling chord as recorded has some kind of low-frequency distortion-like crunching when the bass drum enters and conflicts with the tubas.

This concert has numerous musical attractions, but I tired of trying to hear these through Exton's synthetic sonics, and would only recommend purchase of this rather expensive disc if the programme is a must-have. What a relief to turn to Luisi (Strauss: Ein Heldenleben, Metamorphosen - Luisi) and Janssons (Strauss: Ein Heldenleben - Jansons) for easy-to-listen-to, truly transparent sound with wide, deep and stable orchestral imaging in Heldenleben. As a by-note, I compared Pentatone's recording of the Pittsburghers playing Brahms 4 in an empty Heinz Hall with Exton's live recording efforts. Although the hall's acoustic here was rendered (paradoxically) almost on the dry side by the Pentatone engineers, the breathtaking immediacy and realism of their sound-stage seemed to go well beyond the speakers and the orchestra's greater warmth was far more appealing to my ears.

Copyright © 2010 John Miller and


Sonics (Stereo):

Sonics (Multichannel):

stars stars stars