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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 [46:41]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1903)
Rusalka Fantasy (arr. Honeck/Ille) [20:11]
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; Manfred Honeck
rec. live 17-19 April, 2015, Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

This highly accomplished, beautifully performed Tchaikovsky Sixth enters a market flooded with recordings, but it has a few unique qualities to celebrate. The Pittsburgh Symphony is one of the world’s great orchestras, here displaying rich, lush old-world strings which bring to mind conductor Manfred Honeck’s experience in Vienna. The brass section is thrillingly punchy and forward, as is the timpanist. Honeck has good ideas about the symphony, like occasionally dialing back the loudness of the scherzo-march’s final pages, to avoid monotony and preserve a sense of momentum.

It seems only natural to compare the Pittsburgh Symphony’s recording to another recent live recording captured on SACD: that of the Philadelphia Orchestra, under Christoph Eschenbach, released on Ondine. The two orchestras hail from the same state, after all, a four-hour drive apart from each other, and they both began the fall 2016 concert season by going on strike. Perhaps Pennsylvania residents can console themselves with these two dueling recordings.

Oddly enough, both count among the very best Tchaikovsky discs ever made available on SACD. Eschenbach takes an unusually broad, measured approach to the score, clocking in at 50 minutes; despite that slowness, there’s no lack of excitement to the third-movement march. Indeed, most of the time difference comes in the finale, which is protracted and highly emotionally charged. Prior to that, Eschenbach takes what one might call an un-Russian approach, letting the music’s innate drama speak for itself.

Honeck is not histrionic, either; he slows not a bit for the first movement’s cataclysm, making its power nearly unbearable. His finale is far subtler than the Philadelphia’s; the Pittsburgh orchestra adopts a hushed tone and softness unique to modern recordings. The deathly tam-tam stroke is perfect, and greeted with a long pause by the rest of the players; in the final bars, the double basses’ last heartbeats fade to inaudibility.

One area where Pittsburgh decisively wins is the coupling. On a previous album, Manfred Honeck and a composer-collaborator, Tomáš Ille, put together a suite based on Janáček’s opera Jenůfa. Here they have assembled another suite, from Dvořák’s Rusalka. (There is a third “fantasy” to come, on Elektra.) Although I find this piece inferior to the first, that’s only because Jenůfa has one of the most satisfying endings of any opera, one thrillingly realized in the suite. Rusalka has strengths of its own, well-presented here, the most famous aria taken (maybe unimaginatively) by the violin.

The suite does not follow the opera’s story in order; it begins and ends with music from Act II. The beginning is festive, but the music to follow offers contrasting episodes of grimness, melancholy, and extraordinary beauty. The result resembles not the opera, but the composer’s own symphonic poems; if Honeck and Pittsburgh recorded the Dvořák-Karel Erben cycle, that would probably be thrilling.

Reference Recordings’ sound is at its usual high standards, although, as I noted, the beginning and ending of the Tchaikovsky symphony border on inaudible. Manfred Honeck again composes his own liner notes and again directs our attention to his favorite details or interpretive choices with bar numbers and exact track timings. He also proudly says that the Pittsburgh Symphony’s concertmaster has departed to take over the First Concertmaster chair at the Berlin Philharmonic. That alone should indicate the extraordinarily high quality of this orchestra. Their discs are always a treat. May many more Pittsburgh/Honeck albums follow.

Brian Reinhart

Previous reviews: Michael Cookson ~ John Quinn



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