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Beethoven sy6 FR747
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Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op 68 ‘Pastoral’
Steven Stucky (1949-2016)
Silent Spring [16:35]
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck
rec. live, 23-25 June 2017 (Beethoven), 20-22 April 2018 (Stucky); Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts, Pittsburgh, USA

If I lived in the catchment area of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra I would have a season ticket for Manfred Honeck’s appearances for sure. As the Atlantic Ocean separates us, I am glad that Reference Recordings have built up such a fine library of live concerts by these artists – I have yet to hear one that is not superbly played and magnificently recorded. On top of that Honeck’s interpretations are always insightful and considered – if occasionally thought provoking. But that is what I want to hear from artists of this calibre. To be blunt, perfectly played renditions in very good sound are the norm. This is not a case for being different or obtuse for the sake of it – for me Teodor Currentzis takes the palm in that particular field – instead Honeck challenges convention and preconception in an intriguing and stimulating way.

This new Reference Recordings disc follows the now well-established format coupling core repertoire with something unexpected. Honeck provides his own exceptionally detailed notes – more an essay really – elaborating on the performing choices he has made. As has been evident from all the previous releases, the players of the Pittsburgh SO are enthusiastic acolytes and play with remarkable finesse and unanimity. By my reckoning this is the fifth Beethoven Symphony to be released following on from discs of the Eroica, Choral and Nos. 5 and 7. In some ways this performance of Symphony No.6 in F major Op.68 is Honeck at his more conventional. I have to say I find his tempi throughout the work just about ideal for me. Both the first two movements are allowed to flow with a most attractive lilt to the rhythms. Certainly the opening movement does embody the “awakening of cheerful feelings”. Honeck takes the exposition repeat – which I prefer – and the whole movement is marked by his usual care over phrasing and instrumental balance. By time alone he sits comfortably in the ‘standard’ range – very close to the same basic pulse of Karajan 1963 performance which strikes me as embodying the spirit of this part of the work much better than Klemperer’s leaden tempo or Immerseel’s driven impatience. Likewise the following Scene at the Brook flows (pun intended!) most attractively. Interestingly Honeck point out in his liner the risk for performers that the uniformity of motion in this movement can result in a feeling of stasis. Honeck avoids this by gently nudging the basic pulse forward and back to follow his perception of the overarching musical line. In other hands this could seem too interventionist and contrived but for me one of Honeck’s great skills is to ensure that these adjustments to a core pulse always feel organic and a natural growth from the music which these subtle alterations serve. The playing of the birdcalls by the Pittsburgh wind principals is a predictable delight. One minor point – Honeck in his note refers to the tempo indication for this movement as being “Andante molto moto” but the CD case lists “Andante molto mosso” – a version which does appear in some (older?) editions of the score. Certainly the tempo at which this movement is played here would seem to reflect the “walking speed with motion” which Honeck references.

The third movement Merry assembly of the Country folk receives a wonderfully earthy and vigorous performance. The basic tempo here is quite bright – but again superbly alert buoyant playing with the ever-impressive Pittsburgh horns ringing out heroically. Honeck is never afraid to tweak an orchestration if he feels it is required. In the central part of the dance – again at a bright tempo but with a perfect rustic stamping quality – Honeck feels that the wind counter melody which imitates the birdcalls in the previous movement is too often inaudible. So he puts this onto the piccolo [track 3 1:41] which is certainly audible but I do find this a surprise and not really in a good way. The problem is that the instrument is simply too detached from the rest of the orchestral group – the higher octave ensures it can be heard but in a bizarrely isolated manner. But I can happily live with that brief passage in exchange for the many other delights this performance offers. Having the piccolo ‘on-hand’ means that Honeck had the same instrument double a flute line in the first movement as well – although to my ears with less detrimental effect than here. The ensuing Storm is given a similarly vigorous treatment with powerful brass and hard-sticked timpani cutting through the tumult to great effect. Honeck characterises the closing movement as an “expression of gratitude and bliss toward a higher power, here clearly meant to be God.” The “enormous awe for the Creator” is expressed in this performance by a relatively broad hymn-like tempo which again I must admit I felt was wholly appropriate and indeed moving. There is a radiance and almost visionary ecstasy in the closing pages which never fails to move me but which I found especially powerful here. Again interesting to make direct comparisons with stalwarts such as Karajan in ’63. He is substantially faster – 8:21 to Honeck’s 9:57 but the Berlin Philharmonic plays with such sovereign warmth and richness that in no way does it feel anything except magnificent. But so does Honeck. Immerseel sits almost exactly between these two timings but simply sounds wan and almost fatigued. His is a cycle over which others frequently rave but it leaves me wholly unmoved and I do not listen to Beethoven to be unmoved. Taking Honeck’s timings across the entire work he is 41:17. Karajan is 34:26 (with some repeats omitted) and Klemperer’s live performance with the Philharmonia is 44:39, so by the crdue measure of timings alone Honeck is nothing extreme but the cumulative effect of his interpretation is very impressive.

The coupling is the impressive Silent Spring by Steven Stucky. I must admit to knowing very little of Stucky’s work. The liner note is written by the composer – rather poignantly given that he died too young in 2016 aged just 67 years. The work takes its title from the book of the same name written in 1962 by Pittsburgh native and famous marine biologist Rachel Carson. Carson sought to raise awareness of the risk to the environment of man-made chemicals and pesticides in particular. The silent spring of the title is a rather nightmarish one – a season where all the birds and insects who would normally adorn the turn of the year with their songs and sounds have been destroyed by man’s chemical intervention. Stucky wrote a work in four continuous movements for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra premiered on the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication under the baton of Manfred Honeck. Stucky has taken four chapter titles as cues for his musical narrative. In no way are the movements meant to be specific representations of those chapters but instead a coherent musical arc. Indeed it could be argued – not that Stucky in his liner makes any such claim – that this is in a compressed symphonic form – the entire work runs to just 16:45. The opening The Sea Around Us is - as Stucky describes it “murky water music” with the themes rising up through the orchestra to reach an imposing climax that represents the wide open sea. The transitions between movements are very well contrived – the second section has the feel of a slow movement. The Lost Wood features a lamenting cor anglais solo – quite beautifully played – which Stucky calls “a desolate chaconne”. As the movement progress the mood shifts from lament to anger which bursts forth into the work’s scherzo Rivers of Death. This powerful section is led by the orchestral percussion with jagged and disjointed rhythms dominating the sustained vehemence of the writing. But there is no solution to this passage which crashes into the closing titular Silent Spring with a carthatic “mass singing”. This final movement then recedes into an ultimately bleak silence as the individual voices of the orchestra and the birds and insects they represent fall silent.

As mentioned, these performers premiered this work in 2012 and the recordings for the new disc were made in 2018. I am glad to see that a piece such as this which has both its own substantial musical merits as well as an important wider ‘message’ is staying in the orchestra’s repertoire. The performance here is exemplary and I cannot imagine it being played better. Likewise this kind of complex and richly detailed score is meat and drink to the Reference Recordings production team. The detail and beautiful precision with which they capture this kind of music – especially in a concert environment – is nothing less than spectacular. As is the norm the disc has been recorded in SACD stereo and 5.0 format but is playable on a standard CD system too. I listened to the SACD stereo layer and was as impressed with the technical aspect of these recordings all over again. The Reference Recordings booklets are a delight in themselves with Honeck’s and Stucky’s notes – essays really – in English only adding authority and significant value to the listening experience. Both give the listener/reader real pause for thought.

The combination of these artists and this recording company are rapidly becoming compulsory purchases regardless of repertoire and this disc is no exception.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: Lee Denham

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