Beethoven: Symphonies 5 & 7 - Honeck
Reference Recordings FR-718SACD
Classical - Orchestral
Beethoven: Symphonies 5 & 7
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
SAN FRANCISCO: Conductor Manfred Honeck writes in his fascinating and thorough music notes: “A recording of Beethoven is always a great occasion and event. The marrying of the music’s historic interpretation with the brilliance of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s playing and the fantastic technique of Soundmirror have made this recording, comprised of three live concerts from December 2014, possible. It has been a joy to look deeply into that which Beethoven has composed, while also discovering the sense and content of the music and thus the reason why it has been written. For me, this is always the most beautiful part of the creative process.”
This release is the fourth in the highly acclaimed Pittsburgh Live! series of multi-channel hybrid SACD releases on the FRESH! series from Reference Recordings. Each, including the newest Bruckner 4 (FR713SACD) has received dozens of critical accolades. Dvořák/Janáček (FR710SACD), garnered a GRAMMY® nomination for Best Orchestral Performance. Since 1896, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra has been known for its artistic excellence, a rich history of the world’s finest conductors and musicians, and a strong commitment to the Pittsburgh region and its citizens. Past music directors have included many of the greats, including Fritz Reiner (1938-1948), William Steinberg (1952-1976), Andre Previn (1976-1984), Lorin Maazel (1984-1996) and Mariss Jansons (1995-2004). This tradition of outstanding international music directors was furthered in fall 2008, when Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck became music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony.
The orchestra has been at the forefront of championing new American works, and gave the first performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1 “Jeremiah” in 1944, and John Adams’ “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” in 1986. The Pittsburgh Symphony has a long and illustrious history in the areas of recordings and radio concerts. As early as 1936, the Pittsburgh Symphony broadcast on the airwaves coast-to-coast and in the late 1970s it made the groundbreaking PBS series “Previn and the Pittsburgh.” The orchestra has received increased national attention since 1982 through network radio broadcasts on Public Radio International, produced by Classical WQED-FM 89.3, which are made possible by the musicians of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
This release and the entire Pittsburgh Live! series are recorded and mastered by the team at Soundmirror, whose outstanding orchestral, solo, opera and chamber recordings have received more than 70 Grammy nominations and awards. Soundmirror has recorded for every major classical record label, now including Reference Recordings.
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Review by Graham Williams - October 30, 2015
The refreshingly vivid interpretations of works by Richard Strauss, Dvorak, Janacek and Bruckner that have appeared over the last few years on the Reference Recordings 'Fresh' label from Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra have convincingly demonstrated the ability of this partnership to deliver new and often remarkable insights into some of the most popular and frequently recorded orchestral works in the classical repertoire.
For any conductor committing two of the most famous and most recorded symphonies to disc is a courageous venture that should not be undertaken lightly, but Honeck's riveting if occasionally controversial accounts of Beethoven's 5th and 7th Symphonies fully justify this decision.
In a wonderfully written twelve page essay entitled 'Looking behind the Notes' in the accompanying booklet with this disc Honeck clearly and cogently explains in detail the reasons and justifications for the various interpretive decisions he has made in these performances. It is up to each listener to decide for themselves whether they work, but even sceptical listeners will surely learn something from these illuminating and brilliantly executed interpretations in which any sense of routine is entirely banished.
Strikingly, at the opening of the 5th Symphony, Honeck weightily stresses the two statements of the famous 'Fate knocking at the door' four-note motive before the violins and violas adopt the fast and urgent tempo that characterises the rest of his performance of this movement. The following 'Andante con moto' flows purposefully, yet Honeck often relaxes the tempo to allow some felicitous woodwind passages to be appreciated to the full, but the final bars, though breathtakingly beautiful, will, for some, seem a little too fussily phrased or romanticised. The Symphony's last two movements are executed supremely well. The Scherzo has a heroic and flamboyant drive with the Trio section crisply articulated by the superb Pittsburgh strings, while the build up into the blazing and defiant Finale is all one could wish for. Beethoven's striking use of the piccolo is just one the many details that emerge in Honeck's gripping interpretation of this movement.
The 7th Symphony (repeats observed as in the 5th) is equally impressive with an opening movement of great vivacity and boundless energy – the Pittsburgh horns especially thrilling here. The second movement 'Allegretto' begins with some exquisitely soft dynamics from the burnished strings and, following the example of Kleiber, – both père and fils – in their respective recordings of this symphony, the closing bars are played pizzicato not arco. The 'Scherzo - Presto' dances with a nimble lightness that contrasts well with the stately central Trio while Honeck's invigorating account of the Finale, though perhaps a little too fast at the start, maintains its unrelenting energy right to the exhilarating final chord.
The playing of every section of the Pittsburgh Symphony is first rate in both works. Honeck uses what to some will be an unfashionably large orchestra but, thanks to the precision and unanimity of his splendidly focused players, the antiphonal seating of the violins, the use of timpani with hard sticks and brisk tempi throughout, he gains not only most of the best elements of period performance style but also the extra magisterial grandeur that Beethoven's masterpieces deliver when larger forces are employed.
The Soundmirror, Boston team of Dirk Sobotka, Mark Donahue and John Newton have engineered an exceptionally clean and detailed 5.1 stereo and multi-channel 64fs DSD recording, made live in the Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh (5-7 December 2014), that puts the seal on Manfred Honeck's vital and intelligent readings of these two inexhaustible masterpieces.
Copyright © 2015 Graham Williams and HRAudio.net
Review by Adrian Quanjer - November 8, 2015
I’ m not alone in my vision that an interpreter has the right to interpret. But, by the same token, the listener has the right to appreciate it or not. This disk is a case in point. As with other interpreters seeking to reinvigorate the beaten track, and in this regard I think in particular to such an eminent musician as Olli Mustonen, who went out of his way to explain why he played Beethoven’s piano concerti as he did, the result can be ‘like’ or ‘loathe’.’
Many audiophiles, and notably some of the elderly, are stuck with the one interpretation they liked and grew up with, as if no other approach could be better; rather worse, so it seems. How often does one read in a review that it was all well done but did not supersede the famous interpretation of Maestro so and so in the 1960’s?
For the more audacious music lovers and concert goers an interpretation testing its limits is always of interest. And with the evolution of performing practices of Beethoven symphonies over the years from heavy handed, massive orchestral sound to a more lively period style, I think that the musical mind is now much more inclined to reconsider old and rusty ideas about how to play them.
This fourth issue of the PSO and Manfred Honeck in the Pittsburgh Fresh! Series (UK Release: 2 November 2015; US Release: 13 November 2015) has been chosen by PR2Classics, who are handling the orchestra’s Public Relations in Europe, to induce public interest ahead of its Spring 2016 European tour to Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Belgium. They can rest assured that it will!
Playing and recording, including dynamic contrasts and rhythmic changes, touch upon extremes: Both are extraordinarily well done, but one cannot escape a feeling of them having been stretched to the maximum. Taking the fifth symphony as an example, one notes that interpretational drive, richly inspired by Beethoven’s inner conflicts, unrelenting fury and continuous struggle to conquer defeat, sweeps up the orchestra to the limits of what it can handle. For any orchestra of lesser quality this would have led to complete chaos. Here, the result is breathtaking. The recording engineers seem to have done their utmost to amplify it all by steering the (spot) mikes and volume in such a way as to lift out and accentuate the various instrumental groups or individual instruments, thus adding much to the thrill and excitement of the performance.
The surround mix is excellent with a proper amount of ambiance, be it that there is a kind of empty hall sound which does not correlate with a live recording (which, according to the liner notes, it is). Has it been added to ‘truthfully represent the acoustical event in the hall’ and ‘refreshing the final balance’?
As I suggested before -with some exaggeration-, some will greatly appreciate it, whereas others, probably the more conservative listener, may disapprove. But whatever the feeling, that what remains will not fail to attract maximum attention.
As described in detail in the program/liner notes ‘Looking Behind the Notes’ by Maestro Honeck about the 5th symphony: ‘Surveying the over one-hundred years since those first recordings, it is clear to see that the music performance tradition has changed dramatically’, although it is difficult to clearly define its evolution until the 1950’s, when the ‘..new objectivity, had a cleaner look at only that which had been written in the score’. This was soon overtaken by historically informed practice: ‘..and there exists an unbelievable amount of sound documents that enable us to have insights into the “supermarket” of these various interpretations’.
We ought to take into account that before 1950 orchestras and conductors had their own style. Culture was not as mediatized through radio, recordings and television as from that date onward. This led to a growing tendency to copy one another, be it in orchestral sound or performance practice, with ‘experts’ holding up their clear and mostly fashionable notions of what is correct, good or best. The result was that orchestras developed similar sounds and practices. Uniformity installed itself.
Manfred Honeck describes how he hesitated at first to conduct Beethoven and how he thought it important ‘to organize my impressions and then have a certain distance from the variety of influences’. This, to my mind, is the crux of Honeck’s approach to the fifth and the seventh symphony, and will possibly be, too, to the other ones if these are to follow on record.
It has to be admired that someone has the courage to re-interpret Beethoven. No ‘new objectivity’, nor ‘HIP’ but his own. Honeck says so in so many words: ‘.. and though Beethoven has not specifically indicated this in the score..’, etc.
Beethoven’s life is marked by antagonism, conflict and contradiction. Although many scholars have found it difficult to correlate a certain fact at a given moment in time with his music, Honeck may, as I see it, have a point in letting these elements ‘resound’ in his interpretation. That’s the right of a true interpreter. The question remains: To what extent can you let your own ideas amend someone else’s inspiration? This is a very personal thing, to be judged differently by different people. Listening un-biased to his rendition of both symphonies is difficult. It takes some time to re-adjust. For some in a positive sense for other’s maybe quite the contrary. This, too, is personal. But if one is not prepared to accept a uniquely different view, chances are that one will get stuck forever in uniformity.
I won’t go into comparing with other and generally accepted first rate performances (for instance, and remaining on the same American turf: Minnesota/Vänskä). This would be subjective and probably not helpful considering differences in concept.
I won’t give any stars for the music either. All I can do is urge you to listen and form your own ideas. It certainly is an eye opener which any serious music lover should have on its shelves to wonder about and compare with your favourite one(s).
At the end of the day I believe that this recording is a most challenging stimulus to go and listen to the Pittsburg Symphony under its current Musical Director ‘live’, should such an opportunity present itself.
Blangy le Château,
Copyright © 2015 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net
Review by Mark Novak - December 2, 2015
I had embarked on a more extensive review of this SACD, attempting to place it in context with other modern orchestra versions but abandoned it half-way through in lieu of what follows. This music is miraculous in so many ways and is conducive to (some might even say “resilient to”) many performing styles. It seems that in the last decade or so we have been getting LvB symphony performances from modern orchestras that are brisk and vigorous perhaps as a reaction (or response) to the body of historically informed recordings that have accumulated since the late 1980’s. Seemingly gone are the days of the grand orchestral statement using carefully applied ritardando’s and contrived dynamics. If I were to pick an example of that older conducting style but with modern - and quite good - RBCD sound, I’d point you to Barenboim’s set with the Berliner Staatskapelle. His is big-boned, big-statement Beethoven that has drama in spades and in many ways is a throwback to an earlier age of LvB performances. I like that set a lot – so much so that when I put the Barenboim 5 in my player to give it some reference point listening I ended up playing the whole symphony. With this new SACD, however, we have a different kettle of fish. Maestro Honeck adopts vigorous tempos and the results are quite exciting to say the least. Honeck is certainly not on an island in this regard – recent sets by Haitink, Vanska and, especially, Chailly all seem to hew towards brisker tempos to create maximum excitement.
In the 5th symphony, Honeck is actually quite similar to Chailly from a movement timing perspective though Chailly wins the race in each movement except the last. I find Chailly’s performance bordering on manic – nearly breathless in places – but it is astonishing to hear the Gewandhaus Orchestra pace him beat for beat with nary a fault. Furthermore, Chailly’s set is RBCD but has the superior sound compared to this very good Reference Recordings SACD. Go figure. Honeck’s Pittsburgh Symphony is also really good but is recorded a bit further back with more hall sound. It’s a big and powerful sound picture but not the last word in detail. Honeck’s performance also shares some similarities with Haitink’s LSO SACD traversal, a set that astounded me when it was issued as it defied my expectations for the octogenarian Haitink who sounds like a 30-year old in his set of performances. The sound of Haitink’s LSO is close and very detailed – I like it a lot but some find it too close. You could also include Vanska’s Minnesota #5 in this group as it too is brisk and invigorating with beautifully natural but slightly more distant SACD sound. All of these mentioned are easily recommendable performances of the mighty 5th symphony if one is looking for an exciting, modern orchestra version with inflections from the period performance arena.
Honeck’s 7th symphony is another vigorous and powerful statement. It is a wonderful performance with plenty of light and shade. Once again, Chailly is faster in every movement save the last and the playing of the Gewandhaus is amazingly precise. Pittsburgh’s playing, if not quite that razor sharp, is also quite splendid. I continue to slightly prefer the sound of the Decca RBCD set here but Honeck’s recordings is very fine. Honeck is very close in timing to Vanska’s Minnesota/BIS performance – except in the third movement presto where Vanska takes a whole minute longer. Honeck is exhilarating (and for that matter so are Chailly and Haitink) where Vanska finds some extra breathing room. All of these performances are wonderful and one couldn’t go wrong with any of them – Honeck, Chailly, Vanska, and Haitink – if looking for modern orchestras as influenced by historical practices. They all have very good sound though I prefer the Decca RBCD sound provided for the Chailly recordings if only by a hair. Note that I could swear I heard Honeck (presumably) humming along in the finale of the 7th symphony just before the 4 minute mark. Catchy tunes, Beethoven!
If you are looking for this coupling in good, modern sound and influenced by the HIP movement then you shouldn’t hesitate in acquiring this SACD.
Copyright © 2015 Mark Novak and HRAudio.net