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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op 36 [43:30]
Jonathan LESHNOFF (b. 1973)
Double Concerto for Clarinet and Bassoon [17:30]
Michael Rusinek (clarinet); Nancy Goeres (bassoon)
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck
rec. live, 6-8 May 2016 (Tchaikovsky), 6-9 June 2019, (Leshnoff), Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts, Pittsburgh, USA

This is not the review I thought I was going write. I say this as perhaps you, the reader, may too have approached this release with similar expectations, so permit me to explain further.

I have truly been impressed by much of Honeck’s work with the Pittsburgh Symphony – from Beethoven to Dvorak, Bruckner to Richard Strauss, their releases have been uniformly thought-provoking, excitingly played and brilliantly recorded, so I was very much looking forward to this latest release of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. That it had a coupling by a composer new to me, Jonathan Leshnoff – a Double Concerto for Bassoon and Clarinet - was merely an incidental detail, so when I came to review this disc, I decided to listen to that work first, placing the CD in the player and pressing the ‘play’ button. There are no track numbers listed on this release and so I expected the concerto to be first on the CD as, after all, the finale of the Tchaikovsky Fourth is a pretty tough act to follow. But instead, Tchaikovsky’s Fate motif blasted out of the speakers, marvellously executed by the imperious Pittsburgh brass players. It promised much, but I wanted to get the concerto out of the way, thinking it would be something similar to those ‘Asteroids’ which was the coupling to Rattle’s Berlin Philharmonic recording of Holst’s Planets Suite, or those various 15 minute commissions made by Riccardo Chailly, when he toured the Beethoven Symphonies with the Leipzig Gewandhaus a few years back – in short, worthy but unmemorable. So I skipped dutifully down to track 5 and prepared to listen ….

The Concerto lasts around 15 minutes and opens with a long, songful Adagio, followed by a short perky waltz, with a busy finale full of good humour. As it began, my attention immediately pricked up at the ear-catching and melodious sounds from the orchestral introduction before the clarinet and bassoon began their songs. It is all very lyrical, reminiscent I thought of Vaughan Williams in more pastoral mode with a huge dose of Copland-esque, American nostalgia and whimsy thrown in -Leshnoff is a composer who clearly knows what he is doing. The second movement waltz is a bit ‘lop-sided’, as if the dancers have had a couple too many glasses of Dom Perignon and is gently humorous, whilst the opening of the final movement produced some tremendously imaginative sonorities from the orchestra. Much to my surprise, I found it all hugely enjoyable, clever, as well as memorable and had me immediately scurrying away to find out what else Leshnoff had composed.

Several concertos in fact, including one for violin plus another for clarinet on its own, plus four symphonies, many of which have been recorded by Naxos. More listening on YouTube followed and suffice it to say that this is a composer whom I have found to be very enjoyable – his Third Symphony written in memory of the First World War is especially attractive. Of course, I did not have the score to hand, but it is difficult to imagine this Double Concerto receiving more persuasive advocacy than it does here, under Manfred Honeck and his first desk bassoon and clarinet players (Nancy Goeres and Michael Rusinek, respectfully), although I found it a little churlish that Reference Recordings should only see fit to include their names in the middle of the booklet, rather than anywhere on the cover of the release itself.

Turning to the symphony, as is now becoming customary on his recordings, the booklet also includes significant notes (in English only) from the conductor Manfred Honeck, detailing his thoughts on his interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. He writes:
“Throughout, Tchaikovsky paces the [first] movement with specific dynamic notations. For example, the long passage of bar 82 to 103 is only marked fortissimo, though this does not literally apply to all of the instruments. Now in the middle of bar 91 he again indicates fortissimo, though there is no specific need to mark this as everything is already in the fortissimo dynamic. Therefore, I imagine that Tchaikovsky expected individual dynamic nuances as a matter of interpretation….”
Therein lies the problem – Honeck consistently either exaggerates Tchaikovsky’s dynamic markings or adds unmarked ones of his own. It brought to my mind a Ferrari with significant engine problems, occasionally roaring to life, bristling with power and panache, only to then splutter, misfire and grind to a halt due to the micro-management of the dynamics from the podium. It is all hugely frustrating, as this recording could have been so good had the conductor just played the work ‘straight’ – the orchestra are magnificently captured by the engineers (as they are in the concerto) a fine achievement not least since the whole thing is live, they play superbly with great dedication and, of course, are a fabulous outfit. However, I think Honeck has “over-thought” his interpretation of the symphony and in an attempt to perhaps shine a different light on this old war-horse, only succeeds in destroying it.

Everyone reading this will have their own personal favourites of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, but if you want a version in a ‘different light’ I would instead point you to Kurt Sanderling’s ancient, but classic recording with the Leningrad Philharmonic in bright, clear DG mono sound. With tempi slower than usual, the work emerges as grand and noble and of course, the Leningrad Philharmonic in their 1950’s heyday play the piece with all the soulful intensity which only Soviet-Russian orchestras seem to be able to muster. It’s coupled on a two-CD set with Mravinsky’s first, mono versions of the Tchaikovsky 5th and 6th Symphonies, which some consider to be even better than the stereo remakes from a few years later. It deserves to be in every collector’s library.

At the beginning of this review, I stated that it was not the one I thought was going to be written, which would have been to extol the virtues of a new, swashbuckling recording of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, with a few polite lines written about the coupling. Instead, I’m afraid to say the recording of the symphony is a bit of dud, while the discovery of a new American composer, Jonathan Leshnoff, is a real find. I’m sorely tempted to award this release the MWI “Recommended” accolade in recognition of Reference Recording’s and Manfred Honeck’s bold decision to include on their recording an unknown composer’s Double Concerto, with no discernible link to the Tchaikovsky, rather than just another Romeo and Juliet or Francesca, but fear this could be slightly misleading. Instead, I would encourage listeners to explore Leshnoff’s body of work if they don’t know it already, but personally cannot advocate this recording of Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony which, in my opinion, falls a long way down the list of recommendable versions.

Lee Denham

Previous review: John Quinn

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