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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 4 in E flat major ‘Romantic’ (1878/1880, ed. Nowak)
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck
rec. live, 6-8 December 2013, Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts, Pittsburgh, USA.
Reviewed in SACD stereo

These are halcyon days for Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony, with each new disc emerging to almost universal acclaim. Recently John Quinn welcomed their coupling of Dvořk’s Eighth Symphony and a symphonic suite based on Janček’s opera Jenůfa (review). I’ve only encountered Honeck and the PSO in Mahler’s Fifth which, although very decent, is a little too safe for my tastes (review). That said, this is clearly a partnership that works; they've since parted company with Exton, but their recordings are still done by Soundmirror. When RR do all the work themslves the results are superb; indeed, their recent Organ Polychrome is one of the best things I've heard this year.

When it comes to well-established repertoire conducted by legends one is apt to look askance at newcomers; it’s all been done before, and so eloquently, too. Those were my thoughts as I listened to Honeck’s Bruckner Fourth for the first time. It was a most unusual and somewhat disconcerting experience; and then I remembered that John Quinn characterised Honeck’s Dvořk Eighth as ‘a far from conventional performance’. Having recalibrated my critical antennae – which meant suppressing powerful memories of Karl Bhm, Gnter Wand, Sergiu Celibidache et al - I went back and listened again.

The mist-shrouded start to the first movement is as atmospheric as I’ve ever heard it, and those disembodied horn-calls are very well caught. When the sun breaks through it does so with a burst of heat and light that had me blinking with surprise and delight. Now it’s been a very long time since this music had that effect on me. And what follows is shaped and scaled in a most convincing way; that means Honeck avoids – or at the very least minimises – the occasional join or gear change. Not only that, he ensures the gentler music shoots and flowers most beautifully.

In Claudio Abbado’s final recording of Bruckner’s Ninth I was struck by how the ailing maestro teased out details that are so often obliterated in more impassive performances. There’s something of that here, with Honeck arranging the Brucknerian bouquet with a keen eye for disposition anc colour; that he does so without seeming to dawdle is even more impressive. He’s also a little brisker than most at times, and that’s no bad thing. As for those fabled tuttis the PSO brass are simply magnificent. Honeck doesn’t linger here either, and that crisp intensity is very bracing indeed.

Now this is an intriguing Bruckner Fourth, so familiar in some ways and yet so unexpected in others. It’s clear that Honeck has come to this venerable score with his own ideas, and the results – which won’t please everyone – are generally palate-cleansing. Remarkably Honeck manages to accommodate the composer’s inward, more delicate sensibilities – as heard in the efflorescent Andante – with his bolder, more public gestures and still hold them in some sort of equilibrium. And while I miss Bhm’s unique Viennese horns the PSO’s – glowing, gorgeous – are as noble and commanding as one could wish.

Alas, that sense of renewal fades a little in the famous ‘hunting scherzo’, although the music does at least gallop ahead without threatening to unseat its riders la Solti. In spite of that momentum does flag and one's thoughts are apt to wander; the upside, if there is one, is that we’re treated to some discursive but lovely musings along the way. As for the finale it has the necessary pulse and power, and while Honeck doesn’t build climaxes with the implacable authority of, say, Celibidache, I doubt anyone will complain. With Alan Gilbert’s New York Nielsen still fresh in my mind it occurred to me that the PSO have a more European sound than the NY, Minnesota or Cleveland bands; they may not be as streamlined – as self-consciously metropolitan – as their illustrious rivals, but my goodness they have tremendous flexibility and character.

it 's a pity that Honeck, generally so judicious in matters of pacing in the first two movements, seems to lose focus in the third and fourth; despite its abundant virtues Honeck’s Bruckner Fourth is not the complete performance I wanted it to be. In that respect it’s rather like his Mahler Fifth; that also teems with good ideas, but it doesn't add up to a truly coherent and compelling whole. I'm also lukewarm about the recording; it's undeniably exciting at times, yet the sound is close, even claustrophobic, at others. The audience is quiet and there's no applause at the end.

A splendid first half, let down by a disappointing second; the sonics are a mixed bag, too.

Dan Morgan

Previous review: Michael Cookson (Recording of the Month)