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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 3, Op. 55 ‘Eroica’ [48.52]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Horn Concerto No. 1 in E flat major, Op. 11 [16.21]
William Caballero (horn)
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck
rec. 27-29 October 2017 (Beethoven), 22-24 September 2012 (R. Strauss) Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts, Pittsburgh, USA

For the eighth release of its Pittsburgh Live! Series, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, with its music director Manfred Honeck, turns its attention to a coupling of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony and Richard Strauss’ First Horn Concerto.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 ‘Eroica’ is a much-loved favourite in the concert hall. It is well known that Beethoven originally dedicated it to Napoleon Bonaparte before tearing up the relevant page and replacing it with the title ‘Eroica’. Completed in 1804, the score was written in the midst of the famous ‘Heiligenstädter Testament’, a letter that Beethoven wrote to his brothers Carl and Johann in 1802, when he contemplated suicide. The ‘Testament’ reflects the composer’s deep depressive state provoked by the loss of hearing, and maybe exacerbated by a failed love affair. Beethoven introduced the ‘Eroica’ publicly in 1805 at Vienna.

In this Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh recording, it’s evident that Manfred Honeck entirely acknowledges that this progressive score is music of extensive concentration, intensity and, as the designation might suggest, heroic power. Bold and focused, naturally flowing and stimulating with an undertow of mystery in the Allegro, this performance from the Pittsburgh players seems to convey Beethoven’s sense of defiance in the face of adversity. Underpinned by the rich low strings, the angst-ridden and world-weary tread given to the renowned Marche funèbre is both resolute and entirely respectful. Impressive is Honeck’s stark underlining of the recurrent divergence of dark and light. With power and exuberance, a character of unbridled joy imbues the Scherzo, with some arresting playing from the horns. With striking immediacy in the Finale, it feels as if the spirit of life has broken free with Honeck providing swirling and dramatic power. This results in an impact that is both compelling and uplifting.

With the large number of available recordings of the ‘Eroica’ Symphony I have narrowed my choice down to a small group of outstanding accounts. There is the glowing and powerful 1961 Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin account by the Berliner Philharmoniker under Karl Böhm on Deutsche Grammophon. Otto Klemperer provides a commanding mono account with the Philharmonia Orchestra made in 1955 at Kingsway Hall, London on EMI ‘Great Recordings of the Century’ series. Of the more recent contributions there is the stirring live 2015 account at Philharmonie, Berlin by the Berliner Philharmoniker under Sir Simon Rattle, part of his complete cycle of the Beethoven symphonies on the orchestra’s own label. Recently released is a striking account from Michael Sanderling conducting the Dresdner Philharmonie recorded in 2015 at Lukaskirche, Dresden on Sony. This is part of Sanderling’s ongoing parallel series of Beethoven and Shostakovich symphonies coupled together. Worthy of attention, too, is another continuing Beethoven symphony cycle from the Wiener Symphoniker under Philippe Jordan with its admirable 2017 account of the ‘Eroica’ recorded live at Goldener Saal, Vienna on the orchestra’s own label. This compelling new account from Manfred Honeck with his Pittsburgh orchestra has sufficient
merit to be included in this leading group.

Richard Strauss was the son of renowned horn player Franz Strauss who was appointed principal of Hoforchester München. Given his exposure to the instrument, it’s no great surprise that Strauss Jr. should compose for the horn although his two horn concertos were written some sixty years apart and in effect frame his compositional career. Here Manfred Honeck has included a performance of the First Horn Concerto, an early work from 1883 when the young Strauss was a mere eighteen-year-old. Originally scored for horn with piano accompaniment, it was premièred in Munich the same year by Bruno Hoyer. This version with orchestra was introduced by soloist Gustav Leinhos in 1885 at Meiningen. Franz Strauss never performed the First Horn Concerto in public and died some decades prior to the writing of the Second Horn Concerto. The horn soloist on this recording William Caballero (principal horn - Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra) explains in the notes that Franz Strauss’s refusal to perform the work was based on the technical challenges of the instrument’s design at that time. Now the First Horn Concerto, which reminds me of the expressive Romantic world of Robert Schumann, has become one of the most frequently performed of the composer’s early works.

In the opening Allegro, the assured playing of Caballero seems to underline the substantial heroic character of the writing. In the enchanting Andante, written in the manner of a Romanza, the soloist’s expressive capabilities shine through, together with the most beautiful tone in the impressively long held notes and phrases. Noticeable in the Finale: Allegro a Scherzo, which requires considerable virtuosity, is Caballero’s rock-solid technique and unerring musicianship. Honeck’s gratifying orchestral accompaniment is hard to fault. William Caballero is in sterling form, giving an extremely enjoyable and stylish performance. It would be remiss not to mention how outstandingly the sound engineers have captured the rich tone of the horn.

This outstanding new Caballero recording is one I will revisit again and again. Of the competing recordings, probably the finest solo horn playing is from Dennis Brain with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Wolfgang Sawallisch on EMI ‘Great Recordings Of The Century’. Brain was recorded at 1956 at Abbey Road, London and although digitally remastered, my main drawback is the mono sound which I find slightly off-putting. At the time of writing Robert Langbein, with the Staatskapelle Dresden under Christian Thielemann, has just released a first-class recording of the First Horn Concerto which is deserving of attention. Langbein was recorded live in November 2014 at the Richard Strauss Festival at Semperoper, Dresden on the Profil Label. This Dresden set will be formally reviewed shortly.

On Reference Recordings, the Beethoven and the Strauss works were recorded and mastered live at Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh five years apart by the Soundmirror team, both with impressive results. Played on my standard unit the sound quality of this multi-channel hybrid SACD release is first-rate, having vivid clarity, depth and satisfying balance. Manfred Honeck has provided the admirable booklet essay containing substantial information, which includes a short interview with horn player William Caballero.

Under Manfred Honeck, with this album of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony and Richard Strauss’ First Horn Concerto the Pittsburgh Live! series continues to pay considerable dividends.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Nick Barnard


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