Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 - Honeck
Reference Recordings FR-747SACD
Classical - Orchestral
Beethoven: Symphony No. 6
Stucky: Silent Spring
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Manfred Honeck (conductor)
Reference Recordings proudly presents the beloved Symphony No. 6 "Pastoral" of Ludwig van Beethoven, with Steven Stucky’s "Silent Spring," in exceptional performances from Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. "Silent Spring" was commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in honor of the 50th anniversary of the publication of the book "Silent Spring", the seminal work by Pittsburgh native Rachel Carson. The music, like the book, can be heard as a call to action to love and to save nature and the earth. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, known for its artistic excellence for more than 125 years, is credited with a rich history of the world’s finest conductors and musicians, and is deeply committed to Pittsburgh and its region. This release is the thirteenth 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, 2020 and 2022.
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Review by Adrian Quanjer - June 4, 2022
Is it about gender equality and climate change?
One more Beethoven symphony from Pittsburgh begs the question: Will we eventually get them all? I think that no collector, including me, is without at least several complete sets covering old and new, small and big in all their facets. And I’d imagine that none carries away the 100 percent perfect prize. What about Maestro Honeck’s success rate? No matter how you look at it, Honeck’s readings have thus far never gone unnoticed. Rereading my previous comments I cannot but admit that he has consistently managed to inspire his musicians to go to the absolute limit of their musical and technical competence. If criticisms were, these have merely been a matter of people taking offense to Honeck’s seeking to provoke audiences' fixed opinions. But, as far as I’m concerned, never for the sake of it and invariably substantiated in his written comments. For me, he is the Mighty Master of precision, turning the impressive power of a large orchestra into a transparent and animated performance people usually associate with a chamber orchestra. A unique achievement only the very best can hope to accomplish,
That said, Honeck and his musicians have the additional advantage of having been recorded in a superlative environment: Pittsburg’s Heinz Hall, enjoying the experience of maybe the best sound engineering in the world. No wonder my expectations were riding high when I got hold of this latest Reference Recording’s Beethoven release in the Fresh! series.
Before going into that, I’d like to give a moment's thought to the ‘filler’; Steven Stucky’s ‘’Silent Spring’’. Like in previous releases, Honeck has coupled Beethoven with another cornerstone of American composing. Stucky may be common currency in the US of A, at this side of the big pond, he is less so. An eminent occasion, therefore, to bring his œuvre to a wider, global acceptance. And not without reason. Commissioned works (this one by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, where Stucky was at the time Composer in Residence) are not automatically a composer’s best. But this one is notably different. Do read Steven’s personal notes.
Whilst at the turn of the century, some European composers, encouraged by would-be connoisseurs, still had the urge to innovate at all costs, their American colleagues continued to concentrate on the musical content. Modern compositions remained largely accessible to music lovers. This 2011 symphonic poem may, by its complexity, not be an easy one, but therefore all the more rewarding. It is in a way the antipode of Beethoven’s vision of Spring. It is somber, diabolical, it’s excitingly dramatic, it’s magnificent. It makes one aware that nature is a force more powerful than mankind; a plea to preserve its gift. Unfamiliar as I was with Silent Spring, in Honeck’s reading it unescapably got my immediate attention. Expressing in music what is barely possible to express in words. Around 15 minutes of awareness of the formidable complexities of nature is in itself already worth acquiring this release.
Back to Beethoven. In keeping with his usual format: In his commentary (lecture) Honeck tells the listener how he sees things. And, like before, he implements what he says. Easier said than done? Although he has had years to model the orchestra into a body capable to carry out his views, it still needs a highly accomplished orchestral complement to do it ‘sans faille’. As things stand I have no hesitation in saying that these Pittsburghers belong to the best American orchestras, surpassing many European colleagues as well. Typical American sound? Possibly. So what! I love it.
Now, what is Honecks take on the Sixth? There is a -disputed- theory dividing Beethoven’s symphonies into masculine and feminine ones. Should that be, then, after having so very successfully released Ludwig van Beethoven’s so-called masculine symphonies, nos 3,5,7, and 9, we may look ahead to a Feminine treatment of the Sixth. Perhaps not surprisingly, Honeck makes clear that such gender qualifications do not make any other sense than that both are equal in their own right. For Honeck, the 6th rounds up the first series of Beethoven’s symphonic output, counterbalancing everything expressed in the 5th.
The second point worth mentioning is the devastating power of the thundering fourth movement. Nothing feminine there. With today’s knowledge, rather a statement of climate change. ‘’Utterly realistic and merciless’’. (Honeck). An exaggeration like Honeck’s approach in the Third, where he wanted to recreate what the audience felt (or endured) when Beethoven premiered it in Vienna? Could be. But whatever the case, in doing so he underscores the power of nature in all its forms, including the contrasting power in the following, pastoral blessing of the fifth and final movement.
Throughout the symphony, passion is omnipresent, be it in a positive or ominous posture. Honeck unravels with his musicians to infinite perfection a modern version of a symphony that is all too often, with a couple of bangs in the fourth movement, played in a programmatic countryside setting, omitting the underlying notion that ‘’Beethoven’s deep and living relationship with God is clearly evident through his worship of nature’’. (Honeck’s words).
Summing it up: This release is as striking as it is Honeck’s.
(Release date: June 10)
Blangy-le-Château, Normandy, France.
Copyright © 2022 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net
Review by Graham Williams - June 23, 2022
The connection between the two disparate works on this latest SACD from Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Reference Recordings would seem to be the relationship between Man and the natural world. Here the recording of Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral Symphony’ emanates from live performances given in Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts (June 23, 24 & 25, 2017) while Steven Stucky’s ‘Silent Spring’ was taped almost a year later (April 20, 21 & 22, 2018).
It will come as no surprise to most listeners that in terms of recorded sound and quality of orchestral playing this release matches the earlier ones from this source in all respects – ie. absolutely outstanding. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s music director Manfred Honeck has for many years established a wonderfully close and collegial relationship with his players who respond unfailingly and with finesse to his interpretative demands throughout both works.
Steven Stucky’s tone poem “Silent Spring” was commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and premiered in 2012 to mark the 50th anniversary of nature writer Rachel Carson’s book by the same title, which details the damage to the environment caused by the use of chemical pesticides. The work is in one continuous movement with each of its four section linked to titles from Carson’s book – ‘The Sea Around Us’; ‘The Lost Wood;’ ‘Rivers of Death’ and ‘Silent Spring’ itself.
The music is both atmospheric and menacing as befits its subject and Stucky, who sadly died in 2016, uses the resources of his very large orchestra with considerable assurance. It is not an easy piece to assimilate after only a few hearings, but is certainly worth the effort and needless to say the orchestral execution is phenomenal.
Manfred Honeck and Reference Recordings have already given us magnificent accounts of Beethoven Symphonies 3,5,7and 9 so I expected no less from this latest recording of the Pastoral Symphony. As has become the norm with these Pittsburgh releases the conductor provides fulsome notes in the accompanying booklet about the work and his approach to it. Reading these, one cannot fail to be impressed by the clarity with which he communicates his ideas on both the music and his erudition.
The opening movement ’Awakening of cheerful feelings on arriving in the country’ however is, for this listener, played far too fast – not what the ‘Allegro ma non troppo’ marking suggests – and gives the impression of undue haste if not impatience. Turn to Bruno Walter or Erich Kleiber for a more congenial evocation of ‘cheerful feelings'. Furthermore, Honeck has decided to ‘improve’ Beethoven’s scoring by adding a piccolo to bring out the suggestion of bird song near the opening. While I did not find this really disturbing, it did seem to be quite unnecessary. In contrast, Honeck’s tempo for the second movement ‘Scene by the brook’ seems ideal – flowing, unhurried but never sluggish. Here one marvels at the perfectly turned Pittsburgh woodwind and warm strings.
The third movement ‘Merry assembly of country folk’ is performed with considerable vigour and precision but again the conductor has added a piccolo and this time it is more distracting, especially when earlier in this movement he has asked his musicians to “stamp along with their feet on these repeated sforzati…..”. The ‘Thunderstorm’ that follows is vividly evoked, and incisively played, with tremendous impact from the timpani and the piccolo that Beethoven actually did reserve for this movement! Honeck’s control of dynamics and sense of drama is remarkable, though his decision to use wooden mallets for the timpani might suggest to some listeners artillery fire rather than thunder.
The finale entitled ‘Shepherds Song-Benevolent feelings of thanksgiving to the deity after the storm’ is thankfully free of any interpretive quirks and one can relax and enjoy the superlative orchestral playing captured in a recording of exceptional clarity.
It would be remiss not to have drawn attention to the conductor’s genuinely well-meaning, though in my opinion, misguided, tinkerings with one of Beethoven’s, most loved scores. If these do not bother you then be assured there is much to enjoy on what is overall a fascinating release.
Copyright © 2022 Graham Williams and HRAudio.net