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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No.5 in D minor Op.47 (1937) [50:47]
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Adagio for Strings (1937) [9:21]
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck
rec. live, Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts, Pittsburgh USA 7-9 June 2013 (Symphony), 11-13 October 2013 (Adagio)
Reviewed in SACD stereo

“Extraordinary: Beyond what is usual, ordinary, regular or established”. By that definition this is most certainly an extraordinary interpretation and performance of this very familiar work. I have never had the good fortune of seeing conductor Manfred Honeck live, but as his series of discs for Reference Recordings and Exton show, he is an artist who is always seeking to re-evaluate the music he conducts. I have to say his insights are sometimes challenging but more often revelatory. I usually do not read other critiques of recordings before writing my own, but by accident I read a very dismissive review of this disc – it struck me that the writer in that instance did want a performance that conformed to their own set of references and expectations. That is not a particularly unusual position to take – very often critics are accused of simply sticking with ‘old’ or ‘classic’ recordings rather than embracing the new.

For me, Honeck’s insights into Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony ‘works’ because he has a through-vision of the piece and his interpretation serves the music as he understands it to be. Honeck is not interested in showing off his own virtuosity on the podium. In this he is superbly served both by uniformly sensitive and virtuosic playing by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the really excellent engineering by Reference Recordings. Now, I can completely understand that not all listeners will share this vision – but isn’t that the whole point and value of new recordings of established masterpieces? As a performer and listener this is a work I know very well but time and time again Honeck made me hear and think about the piece in new and – for me – wholly convincing ways. As is usual with these releases, Honeck contributes an extended and very detailed liner note which explains the thinking behind the performance. The starting point for any interpretation has to be the fallout for Shostakovich from the infamous Pravda article ‘Muddle instead of Music’ written at the behest of Stalin after a performance of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Overnight Shostakovich went from being the leading composer of the Soviet regime to a man who kept a packed suitcase by his bed at night in the certain expectation of being arrested at any moment. [as an aside - Julian Barnes’ novel The Noise of Time is a brilliant evocation of this period]. His partial rehabilitation came with the 5th Symphony and its “artist’s reply to just criticism”. Which for many years commentators – especially in the West – took as the composer choosing to toe the party line; literally a life or death choice. Post the revisionism of Testimony it became apparent that this work – and many others – contained oblique veiled messages criticising the regime; one obvious example – do the closing pages with their ‘simple’ hammering away in a resolute D major represent two-dimensional triumphalism or a hollow effortful victory?

Honeck emphasises Shostakovich’s love of and fascination with Mahler. Now Mahler is surely one of the great egos in music – massive works written about “me”. In Soviet Russia, one of the greatest sins any artist could commit was being perceived as writing for the self rather than the ‘people’. Honeck seems to suggest that perhaps Shostakovich’s “reply” was to create a work that was intensely personal – the journey of a creative artist from despair to resolve – “Victory through Pain” as the liner note is titled. But of course, this is by no means a unique or individual message but one that could be recognised by the masses – a singular yet shared experience in effect. If that is the umbrella concept which broadly covers the entire work, this performance is packed with remarkable detail. Musical phrasing is often surprising but very effective, notes are played with a wide variety of attacks, balances are meticulously observed and controlled, just to mention a few of the delights. None of this would work at all unless the players were galvanised and as committed to the overall vision as they so palpably are. This recording was made live – the frisson of that utter unity and intent leaps out of the speakers – in the hall this must have been a sensational experience. Having sat in too many orchestras often enough “going through the motions” I know the sound of a fine group of players who are wholly absorbed by the music-making they are sharing – this is that kind of playing – the extra intensity and engagement that a great performance produces.

Another of Honeck’s particular skills is his control of tempo over extended passages and indeed whole movements. The opening movement of this Symphony is the most demanding in this respect. For comparison I have chosen just two performances I know from many, simply because they are also presented in SA-CD sound. Both are from complete cycles of the Symphonies – Oleg Caetani with the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano on Arts and Dimitri Kitajenko with the Guzernich Cologne Orchestra on Capriccio. Both cycles offer fine performances – but Caetani's No.5 is probably one of the least successful in his cycle. Technically the recording is not a patch on the current performance under consideration and even as fine a conductor as Caetani shows how hard it is to control tempo. Caetani’s first movement suffers from some clunking ‘gear-changes’ in tempo rather than the smooth organic growth of Honeck. The downside for some listeners with Honeck will be that he is willing to apply a neo-Romantic freedom and expressiveness to some of the musical phrases. This use of rubato some might feel runs contrary to the 20th Century mechanistic power of Shostakovich’s writing – simply too sentimental. It’s a valid critique but one that I do not agree with. Time to mention again the superlative playing of the Pittsburgh orchestra. This has always been an ensemble that has been on the periphery of America’s elite ensembles but on the evidence of these recent discs they are now genuinely world-class. Relatively speaking, this is one of the less demanding works in the 20th Century standard repertoire for a decent orchestra to play. But time and again the attack, unanimity of ensemble in every respect and the overall sense of cohesion is breath-taking. The icing on the orchestral cake is solo playing of the very highest order. Absolutely gorgeous playing from all the leading wind players and a particular hats-off to the principal horn William Caballero for some of the most beautiful playing of the meltingly lovely solos (and these are hard) in this work I have ever heard.

Honeck underlines the work’s Mahlerian credentials with a pair of inner movements that point up the similarities between the two composers. Certainly the 2nd movement Allegretto - which always has a Lšndler-like feel has never sounded more like a Germanic rustic dance. Honeck chooses a relatively steady tempo but it is the way he weights the balance to the lower strings, who dig into the melodies with abandon. The following violin solo is also played with more expressive rubato and a more Viennese lilt than usual. This was a point the critical reviewer mentioned before took particular umbrage at, but I loved it. In his liner Honeck draws the parallels between the slow movement Adagio and the famous Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th Symphony. Again, this is something that anyone with a pair of ears and a little knowledge of music would have heard already. But Honeck probes this connection more deeply and explicitly than others. He finds a level of grief and sorrow here that is powerfully affecting. An especial highlight is around 5:30 [track 3] where over shivering sul ponticello strings the oboe and then the clarinet lament, with playing of remarkable poise and poignancy. The string chords - which have a strangely Vaughan Williams’-like modality two minutes later offer a temporary balm. The flute completes the mourning triptych with a perfectly balanced distant glockenspiel a solitary glimmer of hope. Low winds then slowly climb from despair to a climax of protest and outrage capped with a xylophone - again ideally balanced giving a hardened edge to the strings’ pained phrase – Caetani’s xylophone clanks in unglamorous close-up rather grotesquely. The closing pages seem to find some genuine peace - the recording catching the harp harmonics beautifully and the final widely spaced F sharp major string chord radiates calm.

This calm is immediately shattered by a jack-booting D minor march which seems perfectly to encapsulate the Festive Finale so favoured by Russian composers but seen here through the distorting lens of the Soviet regime. This is the movement that superficially appears to show the composer at his most line-toeing from this square-jawed opening through to its ‘triumphal’ conclusion. Of course 20-20 hindsight makes it easy now to see clenched teeth where once smiles were seen. But Shostakovich did leave buried clues. Perhaps the most explicit link is provided by The Three Romances on poems by Alexander Pushkin Op.46a the first Romanc’'s first verse “An artist-barbarian with his idle brush, blackens a picture painted by a genius” opens with the singer's melodic line echoing the fanfare that opens the finale of the Symphony No.5 (note the adjacent opus number too) which is followed by an innocent little string figure which is the twin of that just before the launch of the final few pages which are seen as mindless state-sponsored optimism or hollow victory. I simply cannot hear this as a curious cross-pollination of melodic material, not setting those words at that musical moment.

But returning to this performance, Honeck is again exemplary at building the long paragraphs of music that culminate in a passage of apparent jubilant release. Even here Honeck gets his trumpeters to push through their triumphant roulades which adds a sense of the grotesque which I rather like. Soon after, the music collapses and the Pittsburgh principal horn gets another chance to display his superb musicianship. For a nominally celebratory finale there is a very extended passage of inward-looking reflective music. This is dispelled by a quirky low pedal A from all four horns over a military rhythm from side drum and timpani which ushers in the ‘problematic’ closing pages. Kitajenko - overall I like his version as a very well-played and recorded ‘traditional’ interpretation - takes an energetically optimistic approach. Although nowhere near as fast as Bernstein’s curiously insensitive canter through the piece in his earlier 1960s recording. Honeck - who in general throughout the work is broadly slower than the average - is quite moderate in his choice of final tempo. But as I said earlier in the review, my wholly subjective interpretation of this is that it gives the music a sense of personal resolve rather than bright-eyed bombast or brow-beaten defeat.

Just over a year ago I reviewed Andris Nelsons’ recording of this work in Boston - a two disc set that received many plaudits but left me technically impressed but emotionally underwhelmed. In direct comparison to that performance my own feeling is that Honeck is a more sophisticated, considered and challenging guide at every turn. And in no way at all are the Pittsburgh players outshone by their famed Bostonian counterparts - far from it. For sure, this is an interpretation that will court some controversy precisely because it does make a musical statement - but in the best traditions of debate, you might start from a stance of opposition but find by the end that your opinions have been swayed.

Not that that is all you are given on this disc. The coupling of the Barber Adagio for Strings after the Symphony seems at first glance to be an odd if not redundant coupling. But again Honeck manages to make this seem both wholly coherent as a choice and very effective. Of course, the coincidence of the closeness of composition is interesting. Given that the Barber is an expansion of his 1936 string quartet piece, it pre-dates the Symphony given here but they do share a remarkably similar emotional landscape.

Never one for the obvious path, Honeck explains in the liner that his approach to this standard piece is to consider the choral version Barber made some thirty years after the string orchestra arrangement setting the words of the Agnus Dei. Hence musical phrases are dictated by the word-setting. I am not as wholly convinced by this as a concept as I am by the Shostakovich, but what I do like very much in this interpretation is that Honeck keeps the emotion implicit in the music on a tight leash. This is a meditative and contemplative version that clearly finds an echo with Honeck's approach to the Symphony’s 3rd movement. By now, the sheer calibre of the playing comes as no surprise but a continuing delight. For sure other versions reach a more overwhelmingly histrionic and even intense climax but pacing is again the thing and the overall shape of Honeck’s interpretation is again excellent and richly satisfying.

I listened to this disc in SACD stereo, and as will be clear from what I have written above the engineering is of demonstration quality. Given its live provenance there is little or no audience noise. That said, Honeck is rather noisy on the podium with quite a lot of grunting and groaning audible, especially when listening through headphones. Personally, this was not, for me, nearly at a level to prove distracting but I suspect some might find it so. I have enjoyed Manfred Honeck’s interpretations of varying repertoire for many years but this is the finest I have heard yet and in the symphony he has created a version of deeply personal power and insight which has renewed my love for this great work all over again. A triumph.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: Dan Morgan



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