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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 - 1827)
Symphony No.3 in E flat major Op.55 'Eroica' (1804) [48:52]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Horn Concerto No.1 in E flat major Op.11 (1883) [16:21]
William Caballero (horn)
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/ Manfred Honeck
rec. Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts, Pittsburgh, 2012 (Strauss), 2017 (Beethoven)
Recorded in SACD 5.0 & stereo and standard CD stereo

Regardless of the repertoire he records, I look forward to new discs from Manfred Honeck as being deeply considered, as insightful as they are intelligent and above all stimulating. And in his regular collaborators, the audibly inspired Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the superb engineering and production team from Soundmirror, he has the ideal partners.

One characteristic of his discs is slightly unusual programming and this new recording is no exception. From nearly opposite ends of the 19th Century both Beethoven’s Eroica and Strauss’ Horn Concerto No.1 embody the Romantic ideal of ‘The Hero’ but I do not think I have ever heard them partnered on the same disc as here. Not only are both works heroic, but both are in E flat – the key which Christian Schubart's Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst (1806) describes as “The key of love, of devotion, of intimate conversation with God”.

Part of the particular delight of this series are the extended and articulate notes provided by Honeck. Often I would suggest an ‘innocent ear’ is preferable. For these discs I find that Honeck’s notes act as very useful pre-ambles and explanations of his artistic approach and goals – all of which he triumphantly achieves. Of course for some listeners, these goals may be radically different from their own. so buyer beware; Honeck is most definitely not some middle of the road safe pair of hands happy to leave a good orchestra to wind its own competent way. This is pretty interventionist music-making but it does this absolutely in serving the music as Honeck understands it to be. For sure this is Honeck’s Beethoven but perhaps Honeck at the service of Beethoven is a more accurate description. I also like the way he accepts and acknowledges historically informed practices – tempi are swift and textures lean – but his vision shines through at the same time.

So what are the performing consequences of all this? This is swift, muscular Beethoven; dynamic, unsentimental with the dynamics strongly marked and distinctly terraced. Accents and sforzandi – of which there are a lot in this work – are hit home with a near unrelenting power; expressive when it wants to be, but with a certain dry-eyed unsentimentality. In his note Honeck says he sets out to underline the work’s originality in terms of rhythm, harmony and form. This he undoubtedly achieves but there are consequences to his approach. For me the greatest hindrance is a cumulative sense of an unbending will. For this work – other recordings have shown just how expressively Honeck can mould a phrase – he chooses rigorous tempi that barely bend or flex throughout extended passages. This does give the opening Allegro con brio a bounding exultant energy, most definitely in a powerful swinging 1 to a bar, but I do find the result has more the feel of athletic virility than any emotional warmth. But goodness me, the Pittsburgh SO play superbly. Honeck splits his violins left and right, which is absolutely the right choice, and their interactions are caught with excellent fidelity by Reference Recordings’ very sophisticated and detailed SACD recording. Honeck takes the exposition repeat, a choice I personally prefer; I am sure he is right to say that the balance of the movement is better with it in. Honeck’s basic pulse is a fraction under the marked dotted minim/half-note = 60, by my reckoning he is somewhere around 56/7. Surprisingly few conductors risk Beethoven’s marking. Some authenticists such as Immerseel shy away from quite such a driven tempo, although others such as Elliot Gardiner and Harnoncourt do follow the metronome marks, not because of what players can accomplish these days with ease but rather in the ‘character’ such a driving tempo imposes on the music. The older school of conductors go for a weightier approach perhaps believing that that approach encapsulates a heroic ideal better.

Honeck encapsulates his vision of the work as being four dance movements. This is something of a surprise given that it is Beethoven’s 7th Symphony that earned the more familiar soubriquet from Wagner of ‘Apotheosis of the Dance’. I have to say I am not wholly convinced by Honeck’s concept. The first and third movements can certainly fit in with this idea, especially when performed with energised tempi as they are here. Harder to fit a theme and variations funeral march slow movement into the vision and likewise the finale. And it is the second movement where the sense of the music being forced to fit the concept feels least successful. Again, the playing is of the very highest order with the detail and care a joy to hear. This is most certainly not a question of tempo here because Honeck, like most conductors, does not get anywhere near the metronome quaver/eighth note = 80, but for all the sheer beauty of the playing this is quite a cool and clear-headed approach. Other versions at nearly exactly the same tempo emphasise more the lamenting almost weary character of the music. That said I do prefer this approach, to the rather anaemic Gardiner and Harnoncourt who even at the head of the excellent Chamber Orchestra of Europe has little of the musical imagination of Honeck – to my ear it is all rather ‘stock’ HIP gestures with little more offered.

The scherzo blazes with remarkable life-affirming vigour. Here and throughout the Symphony the Pittsburgh horns in particular, led by William Caballero, are simply magnificent. Once more Honeck’s fleet tempo is nothing exceptional, with conductors ranging from Cluytens, Szell, Mackerras and Skrowaczewski to Immerseel, Harnoncourt and Gardiner all producing nearly identical overall timings. But it is the tightly-sprung energy of Honeck’s reading that stands out. I suppose this is the orchestral version of the debate about whether Beethoven would have wanted to hear his piano music on a period forte-piano or modern concert grand. The Pittsburgh SO are the orchestral equivalent of the latter and my feeling is a resounding “yes!”; who could not be thrilled by the sheer dynamism on display here.

The finale is beautifully executed too, from the sweeping gesture of the opening to the beautifully characterised variations that follow. Possibly this is again just a little dry-eyed and objective. But when the music reaches the Poco Andante 6:07 into the movement, it is as if Honeck’s heart has melted. Suddenly, here is the most exquisitely tender playing, ravishingly led by principal oboe Cynthia Koledo DeAlmeida. Indeed, from here to the end of the symphony there is a real sense of heroic arrival, with the music striding confidently (those horns again) towards the triumphal closing Presto. In fact the more I listen to this version, the more Honeck impresses me with the conviction of his vision – almost in spite of my better judgement. But that is a mark of Honeck’s persuasive genius and why I enjoy his work so much.

The Symphony is paired with the youthful Horn Concerto No.1 by Richard Strauss. This is simply superb music-making. Honeck does not have any over-riding ideas here to promote just good old-fashioned excellence. The soloist is the orchestra’s principal hornist the previously mentioned William Caballero. Caballero clearly comes from the rich tradition of American horn playing. His dynamic and expressive range is quite phenomenal from the most caressingly lyrical to hugely powerful and thrillingly athletic. It is often said that for the Romantic period in the Arts the figure of the huntsman in the forest and by extension the huntsman’s horn is the archetype. If that is the case, then this horn concerto epitomises this Romantic ideal and it remains one of Strauss’ most assured and enduring early scores. Indeed, as Caballero says in the liner conversation with Honeck, this work is a staple of every horn audition in the world. But Caballero and Honeck make so much more of this work than it being just a technical test piece; this is a musically sensitive and insightful performance aided by sovereign technical address.

I suppose the only question for the really picky listener is the actual sound Caballero makes, which is unmistakeably American and there might be some who prefer a more rounded tone at the louder dynamics. Personally, I find this playing absolutely thrilling and convincing. Given the work’s status as ‘standard’ repertoire there are countless excellent versions in the catalogue, often in pairings with other Strauss concertante or orchestral works. Interesting to compare Caballero with performances such as those by Dale Clevenger in Chicago with Barenboim and Myron Bloom in Cleveland with Szell. Both those players similarly led those orchestra’s horn sections through musically rich associations and their playing is enshrined on many fine recordings.

The most strikingly different style is from Peter Damm in the famous Kempe/Dresden survey of Strauss orchestral music from the mid 70’s. Damm is far lighter-toned, with his sound further warmed by a gentle use of vibrato which listeners will love or loathe. But no other recording I know throws down the gauntlet in the way this new one does and the great joy – aside from the astonishing technical address – is the remarkable tonal range mentioned before. Thus, within the first couple of minutes we go from as heraldic and ardent an opening as you will ever hear to the most meltingly lyrical second subject. Next to this performance even a player as great as Barry Tuckwell with ‘his’ LSO under István Kertész can sound positively restrained. Of course, some may feel that Caballero pushes the expressive envelope too far; I love the sense that this is music making which is on the edge rather than playing for any kind of tasteful safety; this is a young man’s music and that is how it sounds here.

Honeck is a Straussian of considerable note, his previous discs with both this Orchestra and others show that this is repertoire that he is especially responsive to. Again, both recording and performance point to meticulous and detailed preparation although there are no real surprises in the interpretation here. But adding into the mix the technical excellence of the recording this must go into the very top grouping of performances currently available. Certainly fans of the instrument will want to hear this performance: the only real surprise being that it has been in the Reference Recording vaults for about six years.

A final bonus with this disc is the extensive notes (in English only) supplied by Honeck along with a conversation between conductor and soloist as well as a complete list of orchestral personnel. Both performances are taken from concerts (I did wonder if I heard the very occasional and distant audience contribution but if so it is minor and not distracting – no applause is retained). As mentioned, Reference Recording’s SA-CD sound, engineered by Soundmirror, is superb - I listened to the stereo layer; the surround option is 5.0. I selected the same team’s disc of Shostakovich’s Symphony No.5 as one of my discs of the year and I see that it won Grammys for both ‘Best Orchestral Performance’ and ‘Best Engineered Classical Album’. Musically I found the Shostakovich revelatory. I would not put this Eroica in quite that category, but it is a performance to which I will return often for pure pleasure. The Strauss concerto is up there with the very best although the actual piece itself is unlikely to make anybody’s top ten of all time (unless you are a horn player perhaps). The engineering is most certainly at the level of the award-winning disc.

All in all, another triumph for this magnificent musical, creative and technical team.

Nick Barnard

See also review by Michael Cookson



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