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Brahms symphony FR744
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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No 4 in E minor, Op 98 [39:04]
Sir James MACMILLAN (b. 1959)
Larghetto for Orchestra (2009, orch. 2017) [14:56]
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck
rec. live composite, 27-29 October, 2017 (MacMillan); 20-22 April, 2018 (Brahms), Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts, Pittsburgh, USA

From the way Honeck asks his orchestra to lean into the very first note, beseechingly and growing out of a whispered sigh, you know that this is a deeply thought out performance. Grand, stately, very “masculine” this recording is nonetheless lyrically flowing with its sights firmly set on the final movement – the apotheosis of its genre which is, of course, that of variations. For me, three great conductors form a triumvirate of Brahmsian authority: Toscanini, Furtwängler and Karajan – but they all have very different ways with the music, which tells me that there is certainly room for another way - and that is what Honeck offers. He combines Toscanini’s momentum with elements of Furtwängler’s inspired idiosyncrasy and Karajan’s monumental grandeur, and the listener’s attention never wavers. He embraces both the solemnity and the melodiousness of Brahms’ inspiration, hence the transition from the former to the latter mood at 2:30 in the Andante moderato is natural and seamless; the listener is willingly escorted on a journey towards that questing finale. The succession of pounding chords at 7:25 is beautifully contrasted with the ensuing hymn by the lower strings and the movement ends serenely.

The third movement – a Scherzo in all but name – is extraordinarily lively and energised, demonstrating the homogeneity and virtuosity of the Pittsburgh orchestra; I have rarely heard such exhilarating playing. However, it is the fourth movement which crowns this recording. Honeck strives to make sense of Brahms’s desperate striving for an apt resolution to the thirty disparate variations of the passacaglia. Honeck and the Pittsburgh SO exhibit phenomenal power and intensity in their execution, making as coherent and compelling a case as possible for the strange composition of the movement; its violent culmination is almost shocking in its power and brevity.

The Larghetto for Orchestra by James Macmillan makes an interesting pendant to the Brahms symphony. It is an orchestral transcription of his 2009 choral work, Miserere, made in 2017 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Honeck's tenure as conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony. I enjoy it; it is surely designedly retrospective – adherents of more progressive music would perhaps damn it as regressive and derivative – and almost a kind of homage to, or an amalgam of, all sad, early 20C music - except there is no hint of Strauss’ Metamorphosen. The beginning is reminiscent of Samuel Barber’s Adagio, exhibiting a kind of Sibelian tonal palette - wild, lonely, desolate with a stark beauty – and touch of Shostakovich, too, with the little spiky interjection at 2:55 over the meandering, disconsolate string theme. The first timpani and brass chorale, four minutes in, is surprising - a touch of Vaughan Williams' Job. Then the clarinet solo is again redolent of Sibelius and the harps recall Copeland, then again Vaughan Williams is brought to mind in the solo trumpet. The horn is obviously quoting the Allegri "Miserere" at 6:14 and 10:27 onwards, each time echoed by the trumpet - then the cor anglais the second time that theme comes around even suggests Tristan und Isolde. At 9:26, we hear some subtle Mahlerian cowbells or something like them in the percussion bank and a bit of flutter-tongue on the flute to complete the mix! I suppose some would say that there is more than a touch of pastiche about it all – not necessarily a bad thing, of course - and we all like a triumphant, optimistic, Brucknerian conclusion in E major such as we get here, to confound and remedy the fearful gloom of the opening, which was in E minor - the same key as the Brahms symphony and presumably one of the reasons for the pairing here in this programme.

The clarity of this recording is miraculous: every strand of instrumentation is pellucid; I suppose 54 minutes is short measure but with performances of this quality it would be churlish to complain.

Robert Cummings has already eloquently reviewed this shortly after its release and I heartily endorse his observations.

Ralph Moore

Previous review: Robert Cummings

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