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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No 4 in E minor, Op 98 [39:04]
James MACMILLAN (b. 1959)
Larghetto for Orchestra [14:56]
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck
rec. live 27-29 October, 2017 (MacMillan); 20-22 April, 2018 (Brahms), Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts, Pittsburgh, USA

The first two notes of the Brahms Fourth Symphony are said to express a sigh and in this performance conductor Manfred Honeck lingers over this “sigh” a bit longer than is usual, but to good effect. The moment you first hear this, it will likely catch your attention, as it did mine. Many details like this emerge with greater significance throughout the symphony, details that sometimes are less discernible in other performances. Here, Honeck delivers a dark but energetic reading of this profound Brahms symphony. You notice the care he takes in his phrasing as regards to the varying degrees of the strings' vibrato, the brass instruments' often edgy sound, and in his unerring sense for proper dynamics and instrumental balances.

As suggested above, Honeck's phrasing immediately begins shaping the music in a rather unique way in this performance, which is derived from several live concerts. Thus the first movement opening has a bit more ambivalence in the way those pairs of notes etch out the main theme, first moving downward, then upward and so on. Yet Brahms' angular melody comes across with a warm lyrical character, even if, paradoxically, it is somewhat unsettled. Honeck goes on to impart a feeling of tension in the development section with clear textures and judicious dynamics, thus allowing all sorts of orchestral detail to emerge. The whole movement brims with an undercurrent of tension actually, and when the coda arrives it comes on with a vehemence and growing sense of desperation as it proceeds toward its dark finish.

The second movement, mostly a mixture of solemnity and serenity, unfolds most effectively here, the horns and woodwinds playing with great feeling and a seemingly perfect sense for dynamics. When the main theme is taken up in a slightly varied way by the strings at 2:31 the mood turns lushly rapturous, and here you notice a sort of tremulous glow in the vibrato, which so enhances this passage. The frenetic faster music that comes later is brilliantly brought off and the movement ends in an appropriately austere manner.

The third movement, arguably a scherzo though not designated as such, is taken at a faster than usual tempo. Here the Pittsburgh players really turn on the colors and spirit from every choir of the orchestra, as rhythms are flexible but have plenty of weight, strings and winds effervesce with bursts of energy, and brass burnish with brilliance and stateliness. This is one of the finest performances of this movement I have ever heard.

The finale is just as effective. This profound movement, a passacaglia with thirty variations, may still puzzle many listeners, but if those wanting a recording that elucidates its often cryptic music, they'll be served very well by Honeck and the Pittsburgh players here. The strings and woodwinds are especially adept at giving the music an edginess while clarifying textures. Honeck's tempos are well chosen and all other aspects of his phrasing catch the soul of this dark and somewhat disturbing movement. The flute solo (2:55 – 3:38) by Lorna McGhee is ghostly and intense. The whole middle section is haunting and ominous, and when the pace quickens with the nineteenth variation there is temporarily a moment of hope, but it is eventually dashed as the music returns to its more serious and pessimistic character. All this is performed so effectively in this brilliantly atmospheric rendering of the music. The sound reproduction by Reference Recordings is vivid and powerful and audience noise is unnoticeable.

Not surprisingly, there is much competition in this symphony. Bruno Walter/Columbia Symphony (Sony), Abbado/LSO (DG), Gunther Wand/North German RSO (RCA) are quite fine, but two recent efforts from complete symphony sets by Chailly/Gewandhausorchester (Decca) and Ticciati/Scottish Chamber Orchestra (Linn - review), are quite worthy as well, even if the latter has a few flaws. There are many other fine versions as well, but without doubt Honeck's Brahms Fourth can easily stand with the very best performances of this work.

James MacMillan's Larghetto for Orchestra was premiered in October, 2017 by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, which had commissioned the work. It is an arrangement of the composer's 2009 choral a cappella work Miserere which, the composer explains in the album notes, was a composition he felt could adapt well to the orchestral realm. I think he succeeded nicely in the transition to the instrumental world, though I favor the original choral version. The music moves from a string-dominated solemn and mournful mood at the outset to a stately and more hopeful character where brass and woodwinds become active in the scoring. Still, the music retains a solemnity and religiosity throughout. Like Olivier Messiaen, MacMillan has written much masterly religious music relating to Roman Catholic worship. He and his wife Lynne are lay Dominicans. To those unfamiliar with the style of MacMillan's music, I can say the expressive language of the Larghetto is quite conservative and very approachable. In the end, I can assess this to be a very rewarding piece, and not just for those with an interest in contemporary music. The performance by Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in this live effort is fully committed and the sound reproduction is excellent.

Normally, I hesitate to strongly recommend a disc with less than an hour's worth of music, but this excellent Brahms Fourth and the high artistic quality of the new MacMillan work make this SACD a standout fully deserving of a strong recommendation.

Robert Cummings

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