Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No.5 in E minor, Op.64 (1888) [46:04]
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck
rec. 12, 14 May 2006, Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh, USA. DDD
EXTON OVCL-00443 [46:04]

This September saw a commemorative concert at the Berlin Philharmonie on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. As part of the Berlin Musikfest 2011 the Pittsburgh orchestra performed Wagner’s Act I Prelude from Lohengrin, Rihm’s Time Chant (Second) with Anne-Sophie Mutter and Mahler’s Symphony No.5. I wrote in my Seen and Heard report that “Honeck directed his Pittsburgh players in a musical tour de force. This was awe-inspiring playing from a truly magnificent Pittsburgh orchestra.” So exciting was the performance that it is indelibly imprinted in my memory.

The present CD has been produced from recordings of two concerts. Honeck was conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra for the first time. These guest performances were so successful that in 2008 the orchestra appointed him their musical director. He described their relationship as “a spectacular chemistry.” Earlier this year when he was asked about making a recording he made the suggestion that this 2006 radio broadcast should be used. Honeck points out that this was not intended to be a commercial recording and mentions his concern about audience noise. This greatly surprises me as I was hardly aware of any apart from the fervent applause. Sonically this is one of the most satisfying recordings I have heard in some time: crystal clear and a splendid balance make this a delight. With this short playing perhaps an additional live work could have been added to make things more competitive.

Tchaikovsky composed his Fifth in May/August 1888. It was highly personal: when he began work on it he was suffering from a deep depression that knocked his self confidence and was feeling physically unwell. Following a move to the countryside in the village of Frolovskoye, near Klin outside Moscow Tchaikovsky’s state of mind became much more relaxed. The composer enjoyed the peace and quiet of his new surroundings finding great pleasure in his garden. It is not difficult to imagine the Symphony as a reflection of his emotional pain and anguish. The Symphony attracted significant acclaim in November 1888 at the Hall of Nobility in St. Petersburg; yet the composer still expressed reservations.

In the opening movement the renowned ‘fate’ theme, given as a dark and sombre introduction on the clarinets, is taken at an unhurried pace; it sounds splendid. One soon realises that Honeck has something special to say. At times one senses that the expressive music could almost be a ballet score. A frenetic torrent of emotion tugs at the heartstrings and bubbles up into the full force climaxes. Appearing early in the Andante the famous horn solo over edgy strings is quite beautifully played. Raw emotions quickly rise to the surface with the ‘fate’ motto in the mighty brass twice crushing the mood of this Romanza. Honeck asks for and gets profuse amounts of emotional force and compelling intensity and passion. Coming as a relief the light and flowing waltz in the third movement is balletic and delivers an uncommon freshness. I was stuck by the effect of the scurrying yet delightful elfin motif in strings and woodwind. Now appearing in a ghostly guise the ‘fate’ motif returns on the clarinet and bassoon at 5:00 (track 3). In the finale the motif feels like a triumphantly emotional statement. At 3:15 (track 4) the pace quickens with the tension filled music rapidly careering headlong together with a roaring increase in volume. Dramatic playing continues to drive the music forward ending with a stirring and rather bombastic proclamation of victory.

Tchaikovsky’s Fifth is much recorded. Should anyone want an alternative to this magnificent Pittsburgh account there are several thrilling alternatives that will provide much pleasure: Mariss Jansons and the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra on Chandos CHAN 8351, Gennady Rozhdestvensky and the LSO on Regis RRC 1213, Yevgeny Mravinsky with the Leningrad PO on DG 419 745-2GH2 and Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra on Sony SBK 46538.

Throughout this masterly performance I was struck by Honeck’s heightened sense of atmosphere and texture. It makes for a thrilling reading – one that I will want to play again and again.

Michael Cookson

A thrilling reading – one that I will want to play again and again.