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Brahms symphony 4 FR744
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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No 4 in E minor, Op 98 [39:10]
Sir James MacMILLAN (b. 1959)
Larghetto for Orchestra [14:56]
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck
rec. live, October 2017 (MacMillan), April 2018 (Brahms) Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts, Pittsburgh, USA
Hybrid SACD 5.0

It’s probably fair to say that most listeners will have a particular piece of music, which, for whatever reason, will have a special association or significance for them. For me it will always be one of my A-Level Music set works – Brahms’s epic Fourth Symphony.

The moment I had this new Brahms CD in front of me, I was immediately impressed by the presentation itself. The jewel case has a luxury, solid feel to it, and the substantial booklet – some twenty-six pages mainly of text and in English only – stands head-and-shoulders above the norm, in every respect. The first fourteen pages, contributed by Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s Musical Director and Conductor Manfred Honeck, are devoted solely to the Brahms Symphony, under the respective headings of Forging a new path forward, Brahms The Man, About the Fourth Symphony, and finally Inside the Fourth Symphony – this latter being an eight-page, detailed analysis of each of the four movements.

But here this analysis is not just about structure, which provides a hugely erudite and invaluable vade mecum for any exam candidate. More importantly, and something rarely, if ever, shared with the listener in this context, Honeck outlines all of his interpretative niceties, and other relevant information, which he would have shared with his players at the rehearsal stage, to ensure that, on the day, they perform as one – technically and intellectually.

In his early years, Austrian-born Honeck gained invaluable orchestral experience as a violinist, and then violist with the Vienna Philharmonic, and Vienna State Opera Orchestra, so he has a special affinity with the string section at Pittsburgh. To cite one specific benefit this has brought to the orchestra’s unique sound, is their well-studied attention to legato-playing. Ordinarily he would expect his string-players to change bows simultaneously, which, as he confirms, ‘works very well and also has visual appeal’. But he goes on to say that this method doesn’t result in a truly sustained legato. His solution is to ask his players to change their bows more often, so that any changes appear seamless and uninterrupted, which he cites as a veritable ‘hallmark of Brahms’. The remainder of the outstanding booklet deals with MacMillan’s Larghetto, with contributions by the composer, and Dr Richard E Rodda – a regular provider of sleeve, and programme notes, and further relevant biographical information. This even includes a detailed list of orchestral personnel involved in both works – should you feel like personally congratulating any one player on their contribution.

The CD is the twelfth collaboration between Honeck and his Pittsburgh players on the Reference Recordings label, and comes in the form of an SACD 5.0 Hybrid, although I auditioned it on my trusty conventional CD player without any of the extra bells and whistles. According to the booklet, the CD was recorded live, prior to the onset of the pandemic, in Pittsburgh’s Heinz Hall, fortunately with an unbelievably well-behaved and healthy audience.

Unlike Brahms’s Third Symphony, which begins robustly on the first beat of the bar, the Fourth starts on the last beat, an upbeat, or anacrusis, which is already the weakest beat in the bar. Furthermore, given that it also has to be played piano, just by first and second violins an octave apart, it represents a decidedly understated start, by comparison with the Third. Honeck confirms that the opening of the Fourth is, in fact, one of the most difficult to bring off. Apparently, and something of which I was blissfully unaware at the time of my A-Levels, Brahms had originally written four more introductory bars, which he eventually deleted when the score was finished, causing some observers to say that ‘it had already begun before it begins’.

In practice, it’s a balancing act between giving the violins an unambiguous signal to start, thus safeguarding a perfect ensemble, but one that is still sufficiently relaxed to avoid a clumsy, four-square upbeat, or slight hiatus when most of the orchestra join in on the very next beat. Fellow-Austrian, Carlos Kleiber, even remarked that he could not conduct this opening, although he did eventually record the symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1980, and which is still generally regarded as a benchmark recording (Deutsche Grammophon 400 037-2). Honeck manages to reconcile these seemingly conflicting demands with equal skill and composure, creating an opening that, for me, represents the best of both worlds.

As mentioned, the disc is an SACD Hybrid, which I now understand means it has two independent data layers, one containing the enhanced data, and the other the basic audio information. At only a few seconds in, it seemed to me as if my conventional CD-player had reinvented itself, such was the quite stunning sound-quality from my speakers. I investigated this further and discovered that, when played on a conventional CD-player, you wouldn’t usually expect any significant improvement in sound-quality. Simply-put, when inserted into an old-school machine, only the regular CD audio track data will be read, as would be the case with any regular CD. Only a dedicated modern SACD-player has the necessary firmware to access, and respond to the enhanced data on the second data layer.

However, there are many reports of SACDs still appearing more vivid than ordinary CDs, but the reason has nothing to do with the encoding process per se. Any perceived difference in sound should depend more on the quality of the mastering, than the format. To this end, Soundmirror of Boston, are acknowledged specialists in the field, and have clearly got this down to a fine art, much to the benefit of listeners, auditioning this new release in either format. Furthermore, the company’s stated philosophy – the sound has to serve the music – perfectly accords with that of Maestro Honeck.

According to the eponymous studio album released by the Bee Gees in 1993, ‘Size Isn’t Everything’, but when applied to the Pittsburgh SO, it might not be strictly true. Here is the average string complement of a modern full-scale symphony orchestra, followed by the Pittsburgh’s resources in brackets: first violins 16-18 (21), second violins 16 (19), violas 12 (16), cellos 12 (11), and double basses 8 (11). The upper strings on the recording have great strength and maintain a strikingly-taut ensemble, but are equally able to create the most ravishing sounds at the other end of the dynamic scale. However, the most obvious benefit is arguably the number of double-basses involved – almost 40% more than average. The recording soon makes the listener very much aware of this increase in numbers, but it’s more in the added richness it imparts at the extreme bottom of the extended range. Factor in Brahms’s requirement for a double-bassoon, and you then have a truly impressive and immensely solid bassline to build upon.

Of course, Honeck’s early experience as a violist in the Vienna Philharmonic affords him the perfect rite of passage to fashion a truly authentic Brahmsian sound from his players, and not just from the strings. The wind playing is superb throughout, both in well-balanced ensemble work, and telling solo contributions, where, again the oboe gets a well-deserved mention, as does the flautist, particularly for a quite sublime rendition of the solo variation in the Finale. The Pittsburgh horn section is at least the equal of anything from across the pond, again with a mightily impressive, totally unflawed sound, which is perfectly matched by the trombones, especially, for example, in the main chorale-theme of the last movement.

The USA is a big place, of course, and, just like the difference between, say, a northern or southern accent, this can similarly be discerned to some degree, from the overall sound of any of its many fine symphony orchestras dotted throughout the country. Specifically, the trumpet-playing fraternity might acknowledge varying gradations of brightness and tonal-edge heard throughout the land. Taking this one step further, it can sometimes imbue American orchestras with an overall sharpness and clarity of line, when compared with their European cousins. This is certainly the case here, where the trumpets’ contribution is really impressive, and adds greatly to the effect, and immediacy of the listening experience.

In terms of interpretation overall, Honeck’s first point of reference is the score itself, which he then infuses with his own thoughts and ideas, but never ever masking or radically altering the composer’s original conception. The second movement, for example, is marked Andante moderato; some readings lean more towards the Andante than the Moderato, which can result in some over sentimentalising. For me, Honeck again gets his tempo spot on, and nowhere more so than in the quite ravishing recapitulation of the second theme in the home key at 7:49. To be honest, I’d never realised just how beautiful this moment was, or, for that matter, heard some of the bassoon counter-melodies, which stand out in relief in Honeck’s well-studied reading.

While none of Brahms’s symphonies has a conventional Scherzo as such, the third movement of the Fourth is about as close as it gets. Interestingly, this does bear some resemblance to his Academic Festival Overture, written four years earlier. That celebratory work was a particularly happy creation for the composer, and, in similar vein, Honeck ensures that the spirit of the tempo marking here – Allegro giocoso – very much reflects the similar intentions of the composer, especially in terms of the giocoso descriptor – lively, humorous. Again this comes off so successfully, that it’s patently obvious to the listener, that the players are all having a real ‘ball’ – if not, perhaps a ‘Scherzo’ as such, and for which the vibrant percussion section – pitched and unpitched – must take some of the credit.

The booklet does confirm that the majority of Honeck’s interpretative tweaks are reserved for the Finale. But his thinking is always well-argued, so that, should you not wish to rubber-stamp every nuance or aesthetic judgement, you are still able to appreciate the thinking and rationale behind it. At the end of the day, nothing that Honeck proposes does anything but enhance the musical flow of this unique symphonic finale, and is in no way counter-productive. The movement’s floor-plan features an initial eight-bar chorale-like theme, followed by thirty variations, all cast as a symphonic passacaglia, somewhat along the lines of Pachelbel’s once-ubiquitous Canon. Brahms bases his theme around the chaconne from the closing movement of JS Bach’s early cantata Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich (For Thee, O Lord, I long), BWV 150. At 8:29, Honeck really starts to crank things up, building to an absolutely formidable close, less than a minute away, From here on, there is a real end-of-term feeling of freedom and relaxation, in which all four orchestral sections willingly participate, but where the playing itself still remains as disciplined and committed, as it was at the start of the symphony.

The accompanying work – Larghetto for Orchestra – was commissioned by the Pittsburgh SO in honour of the tenth anniversary of Maestro Honeck as Music Director, and received its world premiere at the recording venue, Heinz Hall, in October 2017. Writing about his work, Scottish-born composer and conductor James MacMillan says that, on receiving the commission, he decided to arrange one of his earlier choral pieces for orchestra – his Miserere, of 2009.

The resulting Larghetto opens with a ‘chorale’ played by cellos, soon to be answered by ‘mourning’ phrase from the violins, and punctuated by solemn brass chords. The middle section involves prolonged solos for trumpet and horn rather in the manner of plainchant exchanges, before the cellos return with the opening theme. In the final section, the main theme, which, until then, has been in the minor, returns once more, but now in the major key, which MacMillan describes as ‘giving the closing moments… a hymn-like sense of devotion within a Celtic modality’.

Honeck has toured the piece extensively, so clearly he and his orchestral colleagues have real empathy for the work, which is very evident in this extremely poignant and moving reading. The unrivalled expertise of the recording engineers once more captures the orchestra’s warm string tone to perfection, as well as the placement and sound of the two outstanding brass soloists.

If hardly a match for the Brahms Symphony, in terms of musical credentials or intrinsic quality, in every other respect Honeck and his Pittsburgh players ensure that MacMillan’s Larghetto for Orchestra is at least a commendable and appropriate running-partner here, under the circumstances.

Brahms’s Fourth Symphony has had a special place in my heart for more years than I care to remember. Listening to this splendid new recording has, of course, rekindled what was probably little more than a ‘schoolboy crush’ at the time. But, thanks to Maestro Honeck’s incredibly insightful reading, and the unwavering musical and technical support from all involved in the production of this exquisite new CD, I am embarked on a second love-affair with the work, but with one important distinction the second time around, I think.

Honeck concludes by saying: ‘With the Fourth Symphony, Brahms confidently answered the question of how to continue the symphonic form after Beethoven’. Honeck, like any good facilitator has, I feel, empowered me to see and appreciate this truly monumental work in a completely new light. Formal analysis and thematic process have now given way to the most crucial thing of all, and top of Honeck’s agenda – the music itself.

At long last, I feel we might just be in the presence of the true Millennium successor to Kleiber’s revered recording of Brahms No 4, now over forty years old.

Philip R Buttall

Previous reviews: Robert Cummings ~ Ralph Moore

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