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Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 - Honeck

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 - Honeck

Reference Recordings  FR-724SACD

Stereo/Multichannel

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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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 are 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 for 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, he was 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. 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 anti these 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.

Blangy-le-Château,
Normandy, France

Copyright © 2017 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net

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