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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Don Juan, Op. 20 [18:31]
Death and Transfiguration, Op. 24 [26:18]
Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Op. 28 [14:35]
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck
rec. 8-10 June 2012, Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

My colleague Michael Cookson liked this album well enough in January, but wasn’t too crazy about it. Since it will be my 2014 Recording of the Year, I think I ought to explain myself. The short version is: I am crazy about it.

Why? Let me count the ways. There’s the ravishing, almost supernaturally good recorded sound. Only BIS produces orchestral albums that so successfully combine fine-tuned detail of every instrument with an exciting portrait of the ensemble as a whole. The engineers worked on achieving the right balance by holding listening sessions with not just conductor Manfred Honeck but members of the orchestra, too.

Speaking of orchestras, the Pittsburgh Symphony is currently, under Honeck’s baton, one of the best in the world. If you doubt this, buy this CD—and their thrilling, unique Tchaikovsky Fifth, and their subtle Dvorak Eighth, and their monumental Mahler Third, and their Mahler First, which whether you like it or not is unlike any other ever recorded. The PSO is a collection of virtuosic performers so in tune with each other that you get the double pleasure of hearing their world-class work, and hearing the joy with which they do it.

That’s especially true of their French horn section. When the horns cut loose in Don Juan, halfway through and near the end, it feels like you’ve been strapped to a rocket and blasted into the stratosphere. The horns add a deep golden burnish to Death and Transfiguration, in which it sounds like there are about twenty of them. There are only six, and they deserve to be named: William Caballero, Stephen Kostyniak, Zachary Smith, Robert Lauver, Ronald Schneider, and Joseph Rounds.

Honeck, meanwhile, has taken an orchestra which already had a stellar tradition, and added an old-school Viennese feel. Mahler critics have commented on the hyper-Viennese ländler and violin tone, and the same qualities of warmth, super-romantic phrasing, and pillowy softness (when needed) are evident here. You would be hard-pressed to find anything marking these recordings as “American” or in any other way foreign to Strauss’s language.

American orchestras are responsible for many of the great Strauss recordings. George Szell’s Cleveland recordings, Fritz Reiner’s Chicago albums, Christoph Dohnányi, Herbert Blomstedt, and now Manfred Honeck. High praise, I know, but fully merited by the stirring, super-committed, super-romantic playing in every minute, backed up by French horns that sound like they came from a Greek creation myth.

There are a couple more things you should know. Manfred Honeck takes some inspired liberties with the scores, which he explains in an essay note. At the end of Don Juan, the strings play sul ponticello (on the bridge of the instrument) to make Don Juan’s death even creepier and more graphic. At 12:15 in Till Eulenspiegel, Honeck moves the D-clarinet’s weird “distorted” note up an octave, so that it screeches in agony over the entire orchestra while the prankster is sentenced to death. Listen to the careful way Honeck and his players honour accents and complex rhythms in the fastest passages of this piece, by the way.

Finally, a warning: you might need new sound equipment. I was so knocked over by this CD that I bought copies for most of my family, and that’s how we found out my parents’ Bose sound system is terrible. Crank up the volume high, too. Indulgent, spectacular, dazzling, flawlessly played excuses to blow out your eardrums don’t come around often. Unless the Pittsburgh Symphony’s partnership with Reference Recordings means they will come around often. I hope they record a hundred more albums like this.

Brian Reinhart

Previous review: Michael Cookson

Masterwork Index: Don Juan ~~ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks ~~ Tod und Verklarung