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Beethoven sy6 FR747
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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op 68 [41:17]
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

Manfred Honeck’s slowly evolving Beethoven symphony cycle has so far proven to be a most intriguing journey - indisputably great recordings of the 5th and 7th Symphonies have been followed by a fascinating Eroica and then by what is in places a good, and in others, somewhat strange, Choral Symphony. I was therefore really looking forward to auditioning this new account of the same team’s Pastoral Symphony, hoping it would be a return to the form of the first couple of releases and indeed the superb Brahms Fourth Symphony from earlier in 2022.

There is no doubt that Reference Recordings treats this release royally - the sound is extraordinary considering it is live, picking up every single nuance and inflection of the expert Pittsburgh Symphony players, deep and rich whether on SACD, or download on either mp3 or FLAC, with a virtually indiscernible audience.  The booklet notes on the symphony by the conductor and by composer Steven Stucky on his own composition are comprehensive, generous and illuminating; furthermore, they are followed by a full personnel listing of the Pittsburgh Orchestra which also, thoughtfully, includes all the additional non-instrumental staff without which an orchestra could not function. But what of the actual music-making?

When reviewing Honeck’s and the Pittsburgh Symphony’s outstanding release of the Brahms Fourth Symphony a few months ago (review), I couldn’t help but list the roll call of some of the great conductors in the past who have also recorded the work, both live and in the studio. The competition for any Beethoven symphony is equally formidable and everyone reading this review will have their own favourites, of which I count as my own: Cluytens/Berlin PO (both of them!), Giulini/La Scala PO (Sony), Celibidache/Munich PO (EMI-Warner) and Frans Brüggen/Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century (Philips) on period instruments. It must be very difficult for conductors carrying this level of historical baggage to come up with something new to say about the music, not least when individuals like me constantly compare their new releases with those seemingly from the beginning of time. When Iván Fischer recorded the Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony with the Budapest Festival Orchestra, for example, he took it on tour and had a young sapling placed in the middle of the orchestra during performances. Of course, this is a purely visual idea and a cynic may conclude that it’s also one from the very bottom of the scrapings in the barrel, but at least it cannot be heard on any recording, unlike some of the ideas of Manfred Honeck in his account of the Choral Symphony, where I sometimes felt he was trying too hard to have something new or relevant to say about the music, with decidedly mixed results (review). I regret to say that the results are even more controversial in this new recording of the Pastoral.

In his usual, always interesting and informative essay in the booklet, Honeck makes great play of how he feels, quite rightly, that the first movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony should be both lively and joyful, so indeed, the introduction is almost an infectious hop, skip and a jump into the countryside – so different from Furtwangler’s ruminative stroll through the entrance of the score. Antiphonally divided violins, played with minimum vibrato, are indeed lively and joyful as the symphony blossoms into life in this performance and my hopes were high, only to be rudely jolted as early as the 42nd bar. At this point in the score, the flute trills away imitating bird calls, but in this recording, it has been doubled with the piccolo, the conductor justifying it (in his notes) by saying that the phrases on the flute here can be “difficult to bring out on account of the surrounding textures”. For a point of comparison, I went to the extremes and played the same passage with Karajan and his full-bore Berlin Philharmonic, quadruple woodwinds and (comparatively) huge string section and all. It is true that the solo flute at this point does have to contend with the whole string section, but even with Karajan’s now unfashionably large one, it is still “there”, without any need of additional help from a piccolo. More to the point, why didn’t Honeck just adopt the old Kapellmeister trick at these moments and ask the piccolo player to double-up the flute instead? By using the piccolo in this way, I do concede that the flute calls are more ‘present’, but likewise the sound is different, ‘squeakier’, if you like. It is a curious interpretive decision and one, I feel, that flies contrary to Beethoven’s intentions, not least since he has a piccolo in the orchestra already, purely reserved only for The Storm later on, which he could have used if he felt it was the effect he needed. That said, throughout the rest of this movement, the music making is fluid yet never sounds rushed, with very close attention paid to dynamic markings, both those in the score as well as implied, an approach which in other hands may have sounded mannered, but with the excellence of these musicians is carried off with some aplomb; it is certainly very spirited.

At the start of the second movement, Honeck pays attention to Beethoven’s con sordino marking (using a mute) to create an especially dreamy atmosphere that works very well. The booklet liner notes make mention of him asking his players to listen to real bird calls of cuckoos (clarinet) and quails (oboes) on YouTube and I have to comment that they are very realistic, even of this is hardly revelatory – Robert Trevino and the Malmo Symphony Orchestra on their recent cycle for BIS are even better, for example – but overall this is an engaging musical journey alongside Beethoven’s brook, which many will find most enjoyable.

There is no doubting that the peasants’ merry-making in the third movement is very infectious, too, although I’m not so sure if it is quite infectious enough for the respectable readers of MusicWeb International to jump up and join in with the musicians of the Pittsburgh Symphony in stamping their feet along to the beat in the main part of the movement – high spirits indeed, although I feel this idea may be stretching them to include those under the influence of spirits of a more alcoholic variety. There is, in fact, a further live recording released on the Solo Musica label of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra’s 2016 Easter concert conducted by Manfred Honeck, Frühling in Wien (Springtime in Vienna), where the Peasants’ Merry Making movement is performed in isolation, again with foot-stamping, but if I were Honeck’s recording producer, I would have been asking him to keep such a gesture for audiences in the concert hall, rather than for the more rarefied experience of home listening where the sound of the players’ feet ‘clumping’ along is just distracting. Since there is no applause on the new recording, discrete patching up sessions must have been used from rehearsals or otherwise, so this could have been easily accomplished - Beethoven was a revolutionary for (amongst other things) including singing in his symphonies, but foot stamping, too?

These interpretive extremes continue into The Storm, which is a pity for it is very dramatic, the whip-crack attack of the Pittsburgh players comparable to the intensity and drama Toscanini also used to conjure up in this music. In particular, Honeck asks his strings to imitate the swirling winds of a mighty storm, which they do magnificently; however, he also asks for the cellos to play their music in bars 64 and 71 with an effect called ponticello (a technique of playing a stringed instrument with the bow very close to the bridge), even though it is not in the score. I can clearly hear the logic of this (likewise, could any other listener) as it evokes a sense of the wind violently blowing the rain across the landscape, an effect later composers probably would have achieved using a tam-tam, or, from the twentieth century onwards, a wind machine, but it’s an ear-jarring effect which sits awkwardly in a symphony written as early as 1808 and I am sure I won’t be the only listener unconvinced by this idea – it is as if the symphony is being “re-imagined” by Manfred Honeck for twenty-first century audiences with modern effects.

The final movement is done very nicely, but for this listener the damage has now been done. Re-scorings, modern effects and stamping are all the sort of thing Leopold Stokowski habitually used to bring to his parties – except next to Honeck in this work, Stokowski is as pure and innocent as a parish priest. Whether Honeck’s ideas are that of a genius or a crackpot eccentric, listeners will need to decide for themselves, but alas, I’m leaning towards the latter camp. I just think for very many they may all be steps too far, interpretive decisions that hole the entire enterprise beneath the waterline - which is a pity, for take them away and there is a fine Pastoral Symphony fighting to escape here.

On a happier note, it was a neat idea to couple a recording of Beethoven’s work that celebrates his love of nature and the countryside with Steven Stucky’s 2011 symphonic poem Silent Spring, a piece which was composed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s book of the same title, the ‘silence’ being a warning against environmental destruction - in other words, the destruction of the very thing Beethoven so lovingly depicts in his Pastoral Symphony.

One has to say that it cannot have been an easy commission for any composer. Silent Spring is not a novel, but more a treatise on how mankind’s pursuit of profit, particularly with the use of certain pesticides in intensive farming methods, is slowly destroying the planet. Unsurprisingly condemned and dismissed by the agricultural industry, as well as, more surprisingly, the media at the time, Ms Carson’s work has proven to be chillingly prophetic with as much relevance to the planet today as it was some sixty years ago when it was first published. However, representing it musically, is tricky and one which the composer, Steven Stucky acknowledged himself by questioning how he could “…. make a connection between science and music, or more to the point between her [Rachel Carson’s] science and my music? I reread Silent Spring and Carson’s other work, and I revelled again in the distinctive mixture of hard science and eloquent lyricism that defines her voice. But how to make music about that? I didn’t try to. Instead, I gathered together four of Carson’s own titles: The Sea Around Us; The Lost Wood and Rivers of Death (both chapter titles in Silent Spring); and Silent Spring itself. With these phrases as cues, I could fashion a one-movement orchestral tone poem in four sections that tries to create its own dramatic and emotional journey from beginning to end, without referring specifically to any scientific details.”

Stucky’s musical approach is unashamedly ‘modern’ in a score lasting around eighteen minutes, that largely focuses almost exclusively on sounds and effects at the expense of any discernible melody. Cascading chords on piano and celeste dominate the musical narrative that’s occasionally punctuated by heavy percussion, which eventually die away with repeated and ever softer strokes of the tam-tam into the silence of the title. For me, the music is all very approachable, if not exactly memorable, but others may think differently - certainly, Allan Kozinn, writing in the New York Times on the occasion of the work’s Carnegie Hall premiere in 2012, thinks so:

In his opening passages Mr. Stucky uses low-lying woodwinds and brasses to suggest a primordial soup from which a riot of activity gradually emerges. If the score, with its buzzing brass figures; slow-moving, melancholy string phrases; pillars of commanding, rich-hued chords; and chaotic, swirling woodwind lines had a visual analogue, it might be a Jackson Pollock painting. But just as you begin to think that this spring is anything but silent, Mr. Stucky strips away the brightest layers, and then the softer ones, leaving nothing but a repeating pianissimo bass tone.

Sadly, Steven Stucky passed away in 2016 and this recording is taken from a live concert from 2018 given by Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony, who also commissioned and gave the premiere of the piece in 2012. Whatever reservations I may personally have with the music, I have to state that a more dedicated, better played and recorded performance would be hard to imagine.

Ultimately, though, with a potty Pastoral followed by a measure of modernism, I’m afraid this release is probably for Honeck’s admirers only – and even they should proceed with some caution.

Lee Denham

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