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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
La forza del destino: Overture (1869) [7:48]
Alan FLETCHER (b.1956)
Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra (2005-7) [22:25]*
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40 (1898) [46:22]
*Michael Rusinek (clarinet)
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck
rec. live, Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh, May 2008
EXTON OVCL-00338 [76:35]

This disc is a marvellous showcase for Heinz Hall, the Pittsburgh Symphony's home base. Its subtle ambience produces a clear, airy sound, captured handsomely in Exton's clean engineering. Woodwinds, in particular, register with stunning clarity. Where other recent productions favour the plaintive, melting oboe, this one highlights the haunting purity of the flutes and clarinets. The brass choir comes across with impressive depth. 

First-rate playing doesn't hurt. Manfred Honeck appears to have built on the clear sound cultivated, if inconsistently, by Lorin Maazel during his brief Pittsburgh tenure. These days, the orchestra produces a distinctive, transparent sonority. The strings are translucent; characterful woodwinds merge into a unified choir; brasses are full- and round-toned.
 
All this makes for an extremely beautiful rendering of Ein Heldenleben. Honeck's seamless interpretation minimizes tempo contrasts, holding the piece together unusually well, though his motile treatment of the opening theme keeps threatening to push faster. The scuttling Hero's Critics section offers not only a textural but a spatial interplay among the solo reeds. The Hero's Helpmate section, led by Andrés Cárdenes's vibrant solo violin, is expressively shaped, less fragmented than usual. The battle scene is gripping, without bombast, while the two closing sections unfold patiently, with a gorgeous sheen. The overall effect is less bombastic than most.
 
The brass octaves launching the overture to La forza del destino haven't sounded so vividly brazen since Decca's "Cleveland Overtures" programme, way back in the 1970s. The performance is characterful - the quieter passages are particularly poised - though some details suggest nervousness. The violin pickups in the "Fate" motif are slurry; the broad melody and the basses' repeated motif get unstuck after 2:17. The strings' back-and-forth exchanges briefly lose momentum after 4:17.
 
Many American orchestras have, over the last several decades, served new American works well. The Pittsburghers are no exception, if Alan Fletcher's concerto is any indication. Michael Rusinek, the orchestra's principal clarinetist, apparently wanted "the clarinet concerto Samuel Barber never wrote" - a tall order, but the composer rose to the challenge.
 
Certainly, the ruminative clarinet phrases that begin Fletcher's score reminded me of the older composer's Violin Concerto. That said, the dissonances here are spikier, and a Coplandesque solo trumpet weaves through the textures. In the central Andante teneramente movement, the clarinet's broad, chorale-like theme is supported by decidedly un-chorale-like, unsettled rhythms in the orchestra. The soloist's obbligato over the violins' recapitulation is lovely. In the rondo finale, quick fragments coalesce into a long, scurrying line, with the clarinet once again lovingly embroidering the theme's returns. Rusinek sounds like he's having a marvellous time, colouring his mellifluous playing with all manner of lovely floats and half-tints.
 
The engineers have given the clarinet a forward balance, which falsifies the musical relationships somewhat. I'd not realized, for example, that the violins were playing the first movement's second theme until my second listening, and then only because I'd read the program note. Still, even those listeners with conservative tastes like mine should find Fletcher's concerto agreeable.
 
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.  

Masterwork Index: Ein Heldenleben


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