GRAHAM WILLIAMS WRITES:
BEETHOVEN: SYMPHONY NO.3, R. STRAUSS: HORN CONCERTO NO. 1, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck/Reference Recordings SACD FR-728 Manfred Honeck’s tenure at the helm of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra that began in 2008 has arguably transformed this orchestra from an already first class one into a great one. It is no surprise therefore that the orchestra has extended his contract until 2020. Thanks to the Reference Recordings Fresh! series this transformation can readily be experienced by listeners world wide, as some of their choicest performances have been, and continue to be, captured in superlative multi-channel sound and issued both on SACD and as high resolution downloads. This latest release, the eighth in the series, pairs Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 Op 55 (“Eroica”) with the Horn Concerto No.1 of Richard Strauss. At a first glance this might appear an odd combination, but coupling a concerto written for the most heroic instrument of the orchestra with Beethoven’s “heroic” symphony – both works incidentally sharing the key of E flat major – certainly makes sense. After more then 200 years Beethoven’s nine symphonies still remain the cornerstone of the orchestral repertory and a challenge to any conductor’s interpretive powers. It is generally accepted that the more powerful rhythmic and dynamic aspects of Beethoven’s temperament are revealed in the odd numbered symphonies, so having garnered much critical praise for his accounts of Beethoven’s Symphonies 5 and 7 it is logical that Manfred Honeck should now bring his probing musical intellect to bear on Symphony 3. In an impressively argued essay in the accompanying liner notes entitled ‘Thoughts on the “Eroica”: A New Path Forward’ the conductor not only provides a historical perspective to the Symphony’s genesis but an exhaustive and detailed analysis of, and justification for, his own interpretative decisions. Whether or not one agrees with these is a matter for each individual to decide for themselves, but all listeners to this recording will surely welcome the thought-provoking insights Honeck provides. Following on from the Symphony’s two crisp opening chords it is clear that this is to be a fleet but never rushed account of the 1st movement (Allegro con brio). The playing has lightness, grace and muscular strength in equal measure and, while tempi exhibit a degree of flexibility, a sense of forward momentum is never lacking. The influence of period practice is immediately evident from the orchestral layout with its antiphonal violins and timpani played with hard sticks while Honeck’s care in balancing his forces ensures that the splendid wind playing is never swamped by the strings. Unlike some performances on disc he does observe the exposition repeat, much to the work’s advantage. In contrast the ‘Marcia funebre’ that follows is given an arresting reading of considerable weight and drama delivered at an unhurried tempo appropriate to the music’s grief laden demeanour. Honeck’s view that this movement is the centre of the Symphony is underlined by the wide range of dynamics he employs. The notably rich string playing, blazing horns and powerful timpani provide a monumental depth of feeling missing from many small scale or period performances. The Scherzo is crisply articulated at a brisk dancing tempo while an especially delightful feature is the phrasing by the superbly secure Pittsburgh horns in the trio section that gives it a real feel of the hunt. A combination of fire and precision mark the opening of the ‘Finale’ and Honeck’s flexibility of tempi is once again apparent throughout this movement. The variations on the ‘Creatures of Prometheus’ theme are deliciously pointed and the individual character of each one fully illuminated by the marvellously alert orchestral playing and the clarity of the recording. Some might question Honeck’s expansive reading of the long ‘poco andante’ section (from 6.06), but it flows with an eloquence and moving nobility that is most convincing. The presto coda crackles with furious energy bringing Honeck’s compelling and illuminating account of the Symphony to a triumphant conclusion. Richard Strauss’s 1st Horn Concerto was written in 1882-83 by the then 19-year-old composer for his father Franz, the principal horn player of the Munich Court Orchestra. Though heavily indebted to Schumann, Brahms, Mendelssohn and Weber it shows little indication of the composer’s future direction and the world would have to wait sixty years before a second horn concerto appeared. The incomparable Dennis Brain made the first recording of the work in 1947 and recorded it again in 1956. Others soon followed, but surprisingly this is the first high resolution recording of the Concerto in its orchestral garb to be issued on SACD, though the version with piano accompaniment is already available in that format. This exuberant and melodious concerto is a real gem, especially when played as magnificently as here by William Caballero, who is not only the Principal Horn of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra but is clearly a horn virtuoso of the highest calibre. He gives a beautifully nuanced performance of the work in which his cultured legato playing in the central ‘Andante’ is matched by fearless bravura and amazing agility in the outer movements. Honeck’s accompaniment also deserves mention for its deft support of the soloist, though in the Rondo Finale his decision for the sudden tempo reduction (between 2.52 and 3.20) is arguably a questionable one. The recordings are taken from concerts given in Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts in Pittsburgh. (The Beethoven October 27-29, 2017 and the Strauss September 22-24, 2012). As usual the experienced Soundmirror team have engineered both works with remarkable veracity. The sound is both warm and detailed with just the right degree of hall reverberation. This latest Fresh! Release from Reference Recordings marks another spectacular success for Manfred Honeck and the superb musicians of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. It is one that even the most jaded of collectors of Beethoven symphonies should investigate without delay while Strauss aficionados will need no urging to do the same. Unreservedly recommended.