Manfred Honeck’s Pittsburgh Mahler has been getting some
good press, so now’s my chance to hear what all the fuss
is about. The First, Third and Fourth symphonies have already
been issued by this Yokohama-based label, whose packaging and
liner-notes suggest their main market is the domestic one. Also,
some of their previous SACDs - Ashkenazy’s Respighi for
instance - were disfigured by a bright, often glassy sound.
There are notable exceptions though; Jaap van Zweden’s
coupling of Rite of Spring and Apollon Musagète
is musically and sonically excellent, which is why I nominated
it as one of my Recordings of the Year in 2008 (review).
The recent double centenary has produced a number of exceptional
Mahler recordings from the likes of Claudio Abbado, David Zinman,
Jonathan Nott, Riccardo Chailly and Simone Young, several of
which I’ve reviewed on these pages. Abbado’s Fifth
(review) and Zinman’s (review) are very different but both are compelling in
their own way. Then there are the classic accounts from Leonard
Bernstein (Sony and DG) and Klaus Tennstedt on EMI; the latter’s
final, live account - by far his best - is now available as
an ICA DVD (review). Indeed, these audio and video versions of the Fifth are
the cornerstones of any self-respecting Mahler collection. That
also means competition is fierce, so this Honeck Fifth will
have to be something special if it’s to be ranked in such
The Trauermarsch starts well enough - there’s thrilling
amplitude in the opening bars - and it’s clear the Pittsburgh
orchestra are in splendid form. What’s less appealing
is Honeck’s four-square, and sometimes wayward, approach
to what follows. Others - Abbado and Bernstein especially -
are much more wild-eyed in this music, their funeral rites rather
more unsettling than they are here. Nowhere is that more evident
than at the return of the opening trumpet tune - at 5:35 - and
the sudden climax that ensues. These are nowhere near as ferocious
or as unbridled as the very best. That said there’s enough
to enjoy here, albeit in a low-key, somewhat detached fashion.
The recording is impressively detailed and wide-ranging too.
I suppose what I miss here is that element of risk-taking, of
the music being forged in a white-hot crucible right before
one’s eyes. Tennstedt and Abbado are sans pareil
in this respect, notably in the großter Vehemenz
of the second movement; here Honeck is apt to cross the Ts and
dot the Is but he doesn’t read between the lines. Yes,
some of the writing here is most alluring, but it’s
often tinged with uncertainty and angst; none of this comes
through in Honeck’s rather literal reading. Make no mistake,
as a concert performance this is a competent Fifth, but as a
recording its idiosyncrasies may not wear so well. That’s
certainly true of the irruptions and manic diversions of this
movement which, although arresting in isolation, don’t
always add up to a cohesive and dramatic whole.
Honeck is rather more yielding in the nicely sprung rhythms
of the Scherzo, even if he tends to miss the whimsy in
these lovely tunes. He’s most effective - and affecting
- in those passages that recall the sunny uplands of the Fourth.
No such qualms about the playing though, which is very polished
and remarkably consistent for a series of live performances.
Exton’s instrumental perspectives are well judged too,
making this one of their most likeable - and natural sounding
- discs. That applies to both the Red Book and Super Audio layers,
although multichannel enthusiasts will be disappointed that
Exton now only record in stereo.
Post-Kaplan I’m always surprised to hear the Adagietto
played more like a dirge than a love song. Yes, it is
heartfelt, but I’m more convinced than ever that such
moulding - gilding, even - is misconceived. As for the Rondo
- Finale it bears the hallmarks of Honeck’s approach thus
far: long on detail and short on echt-Mahlerian character.
It has the added disadvantage of an oft-faltering pulse and
a frequent loss of focus. Abbado’s Lucerne account is
almost brutal in its beat and thrust, and one simply has no
chance in the path of those Swiss avalanches. Honeck whips up
quite a storm here - those big, crunching tuttis are spectacular
- but he still has time for Mahler’s quieter, more lyrical
By the time I reached the symphony’s final pages I was
more persuaded by Honeck’s reading than I was at the halfway
mark. While this Fifth doesn’t displace longstanding favourites
it has its moments; what a pity there aren’t lots more
of them. Is Honeck’s Mahler cycle one to watch? Yes, I
think so; this issue has certainly piqued my interest in his
earlier instalments, which I hope to review in due course.
Nearly but not quite; a decent Fifth, superbly recorded.
Masterwork Index: Mahler 5
See also review by Ralph