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Brahms sy4 FR744
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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

I really have to doff my hat to Reference Recordings, as well as to Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, for their commitment to programming and recording new music is genuinely admirable. In 2020, the same team’s release of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony was coupled with a new piece by Jonathan Leshnoff (his second Double Concerto) that had no discernible connection with the Tchaikovsky, but which won near universal acclaim, even if the performance of the symphony attracted a few cautionary comments from both me and others (see review & review).  Following on from that, this Brahms Fourth Symphony also has a coupling of a new work which is, on the face of it at least, totally unconnected with it, this time from the Scottish composer James MacMillan.

If I start my review with the latter piece first, it is because I am keen to share my thoughts on it with you all. I have come across the music of MacMillan more than once in the past, both in the concert hall and on disc, with mixed results – his Violin Concerto (with its sinister vocal mutterings spoken by the orchestra in the last movement) is a work that deserves (in my opinion) the widest audience, but I have struggled a little with his symphonies. However, I was hugely taken by this new work, a Larghetto for Orchestra, premiered in 2017 to honour the tenth anniversary of Manfred Honeck’s tenure as Music Director of the Pittsburgh Symphony.  This is in fact an orchestrated version of an earlier work by the composer, a choral-only setting of the Miserere written in 2009, and readers who are familiar with the stark and simple beauty of the original will be fascinated by its transformation to a piece for full orchestra, with its more dazzling colours and majestic vistas. Its very beginning reminded this listener of the same sort of grim desolation of the opening of the Largo of Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony, as the melody rises from the mists on the lower strings whereas, further on, there is a Brucknerian chastity and majesty with the brass writing. The music is accessible, tonal, although undeniably ‘modern’ and Honeck’s conducting of it is masterful, pacing the music like one huge arch of a gothic cathedral, with the end always in sight. The final climax is resplendent, almost transcendental, yet is intensely moving as Honeck, miraculously, is still able to give the impression of restraint which then allows the music to die away magically into silence. He is aided immeasurably here by the composer too, who has the climax played without any percussion, but does have the timpanist softly rumbling on the final note of all as the music dies away. In lesser hands, there were moments where the music could perhaps be accused of meandering slightly, but the sheer concentration and eloquence of the marvellous Pittsburgh players ensures that the performance elevates the piece to that of a minor masterpiece. Ironically, this disc arrived too late to make my Record of the Year for 2021, but with this one 14-minute piece of music alone, it has without a doubt earned its place as one of my nominations for 2022 and is hugely recommended to anyone who enjoys the music of Sibelius and Bruckner, as well as MacMillan and Brahms. I simply cannot imagine the piece done better by either performers or recording engineers.

With the Brahms though, Manfred Honeck is of course moving into true mainstream territory and is pitting himself against the very greats of the past whose live and studio recordings we have - from Furtwangler, Toscanini, Walter, van Beinum, Knappertsbusch, Jochum, Klemperer, Karajan, Kleiber and (Kurt) Sanderling, to the comparatively more recent Abbado and Levine - and I am sure I have missed out many. The Pittsburgh players are also up against their former selves in very fine recordings of the work under Steinberg and Janowski. It is my opinion, on the basis of this recording, that Honeck can take his place amongst this exultated company.

As is usual with Honeck’s releases on Reference Classics, there is a substantial booklet accompanying the disc in which the conductor writes at great length and most eloquently about Brahms, as well as his thoughts on the symphony. His is a fluid reading of the work, just tipping over 39 minutes on the stopwatch, in a work over which most conductors take closer to forty minutes or more, with the honourable exception of outliers like Celibidache, who clocks in at over 47 minutes in his live recording from Munich. That said, Honeck is in good company since the only conductor who actually worked with the composer and recorded the piece, Felix Weingartner, took a similarly fluid view with 37 and a half minutes on his own 1938 recording with the London Symphony Orchestra, as did his contemporary Toscanini in his various renderings, plus – surprisingly - the slightly younger Leopold Stokowski who was - just as surprisingly - the first conductor to record all four Brahms symphonies commercially. Indeed, Brahms himself wrote of a Weingartner performance (of his Second Symphony) that it was a “truly wonderful” performance which was “a mirror” of Brahms’s own conception. So Honeck is on solid ground in his approach, although I would not want to make too much of this – at no point does his performance ever sound rushed; far from it, in fact.

In his notes, Honeck makes much of Brahms’s own comments on the symphony in a letter to the conductor Hans von Bülow: “I fear it tastes of the local climate - the cherries here will not be sweet …”, with a particular emphasis on the symphony’s more elegiac and melancholic nature. Indeed, this is especially well captured in the first two movements, aided no doubt by the conductor’s decision to ask his string players to adopt free-bowing, in an attempt to create an approach where “the notes can follow each other seamlessly and also contribute to the dense and ultra-sustained sound palette that is a true hallmark of Brahms”, to quote from conductor’s booklet notes again. He is certainly able to conjure a richer palette of sound from his orchestra than Janowski did with the same players a few years prior, but Honeck’s is also the more interesting conception.

If perhaps he makes more of a meal of Brahms’s ‘joke’ in the third movement than I would have liked, when the whole orchestra tumbles into the fifth bar onto an emphatic fortissimo F major chord, he wouldn’t be the first conductor to insert an unwritten pause just before it. That said, all is forgiven with the terrific fire and drive he inspires from his players thereafter that, in turn, spills over into the final movement which is truly gripping all the way through to the despair and anguish of the final bars – this is genuinely great conducting, the likes of which you hear only too rarely in any piece of music, either on disc, or live in the concert hall - from which this recording was made.

I’m sure everyone who is reading this review has their own favourite recording(s) of this marvellous work. For me, I am particularly fond a recording of a live performance caught on the wing, given by the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hans Knappertsbusch (review), where the second movement andante is instead elevated to something more akin to an Adagio, a Marche Funèbre to rival Beethoven’s own, whilst the third movement is monumental in its power, like a juggernaut being driven pedal to metal, crushing everything in its path. There’s nothing else quite like it in the catalogue. Similarly, Kurt Sanderling’s early 1970’s recording with the Dresden Staatskapelle opens the final movement as if it were a dirge, with tragedy stamped onto every bar thereafter – a superb rendition from one of the greatest recorded Brahms symphony cycles of all. Both are unforgettable, but neither can match the first rate SACD sound of Honeck’s equally compelling conception, which now joins them as one of my own personal favourites.
That Brahms’s final symphony is a rare example of a symphony starting and finishing in a minor key, on this occasion E Minor, is all to the good when the following Macmillan is also in the same key. It all adds up to an extremely rewarding and important release, where the considerable sum of the parts of fabulous orchestral playing, inspired conducting and superb sound (both were recorded live - not that you would know it, with a ‘silent’ audience) all combine to constitute considerably more than the comparatively short 54-minute playing time would otherwise suggest and it comes with my highest recommendation. It will be one of my discs of the year, without a doubt – bravo!

Lee Denham

Previous reviews: Robert Cummings ~ Ralph Moore ~ Philip R Buttall

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