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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op 36 [43:30]
Jonathan LESHNOFF (b. 1973)
Double Concerto for Clarinet and Bassoon [17:30]
Michael Rusinek (clarinet); Nancy Goeres (bassoon)
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck
rec. live, 6-8 May 2016 (Tchaikovsky), 6-9 June 2019, (Leshnoff), Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts, Pittsburgh, PA, USA
REFERENCE RECORDINGS FR-738 SACD [61:10]

Manfred Honeck’s latest live recording with the Pittsburgh Symphony has, as its main offering, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. Before considering that oft-recorded work, it’s appropriate to discuss the coupling, the first recording of the American composer Jonathan Leshnoff’s Double Concerto for Clarinet and Bassoon. I can’t recall hearing his music before although, according to his biography in the booklet, quite a few of his works have been recorded. If this Double Concerto is typical of his work then I’m keen to hear more.

The Double Concerto was written for the artists who play it here; in fact, I wonder if the recording stems from the first performances of the work. Michael Rusinek and Nancy Goeres are the principals of their respective sections with the Pittsburgh Symphony. The concerto is in three short movements. The composer describes the first as “mostly delicate and subtle”. The music proceeds in a moderate tempo and one feature of the writing is that much of the bassoon part has the instrument in its upper compass; this is deliberate in order to balance the two solo instruments as effectively as possible. Both solo parts are primarily cantabile in nature and the melodic basis of the music is consistently attractive. There’s a fresh, open feel to the music and, apart from one brief climax, the movement is predominantly gentle and lyrical in voice. The whole thing is winningly attractive.

There follows a short central movement which Leshnoff describes as “a ‘tipsy’ waltz”. The character is light-hearted and the nature of the solo parts is perky. As I listened, I recalled the hackneyed description of the bassoon as “the clown of the orchestra”. As a one-time player of the bassoon I’ve always regarded that as a gratuitous calumny, but I’ll admit that the instrument can portray humour very well and Leshnoff exploits that characteristic here. Towards the end of the movement the solo bassoonist and her two colleagues in the orchestra combine briefly to entertain us. The finale is lively and here the solo writing is mainly staccato. That said, at 2:18 there’s a lyrical legato section of which the prime component is an extended clarinet solo. Just before 4:00 the music resumes its perky character and this sees the concerto out.

I think Jonathan Leshnoff has given us a thoroughly entertaining piece. Its dimensions may be modest but the concerto is delightful from first bar to last. Michael Rusinek and Nancy Goeres are superb soloists. The orchestration has a consistently light touch – there’s a chamber feel to the work – but the accompaniment is always interesting and effective. I shall certainly return to this disc to hear the Double Concerto.

Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony needs no introduction; there’s a plethora of recordings in the catalogue. It’s typical of Manfred Honeck’s approach to any work he conducts that he always goes back to first principles and thinks about the score in question very deeply. Unusually among conductors, he shares his reasoning with listeners by way of extremely detailed booklet notes, as he does here. My first encounter with the disc – even before I’d received my review copy – was when BBC Radio 3 broadcast the first movement a few weeks ago. I was struck then by what seemed, at first hearing, to be an uncommon gentleness in certain passages and I had the impression that this interpretation of the symphony was going to be a bit different from what I had been accustomed to hearing.

Over all the years I’ve been listening to this symphony, the recording I’ve kept coming back to is the unforgettable, incandescent recording that Evgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic set down in London for DG in September 1960. So, I decided to make that touchstone recording my comparative version. I have it in its DG incarnation along with the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, though as copyright has lapsed these recordings have since been issued by more than one other label. I noted Rob Barnett’s review of the Pristine Audio release in which he summed up the performances thus: “These are not mundane or routine recordings or readings. They are likely to leave most listeners shaken and convinced yet again that music still has something extraordinary for us. The opposite pole from routine.” That’s a view I share completely, as I do Rob’s verdict that “These are the sort of readings that spoil you for the rest”. Would Mravinsky spoil me for Honeck in the Fourth?

As I listened to the first movement, I noticed a number of occasions where for expressive effect Honeck modifies either the tempo or the dynamics, either in ways that aren’t indicated in the score or to a greater extent than the score indicates. In general, these interpretative decisions seem to work well and Mravinsky also makes modifications, though not necessarily in the same places or to the same extent. That said, some of Honeck’s decisions in the matter of dynamics seem a trifle fussy to me. He makes the Moderato assai quasi andante section (from 5:31) graceful and wistful and hereabouts we can savour some very refined contributions from the woodwinds and the cellos. Mravinsky is a bit swifter in this passage and I don’t detect that wistful character which Honeck brings out so successfully. Honeck’s performance has plenty of fire and excitement in the development section (for example from 11:41) and the big climax is very passionate. A little later on (at 16:50) the quality of the engineering and Honeck’s decision to divide the violins left and right mean that the different string sections’ material underneath the woodwind legato lines is excellently differentiated. Just before the Allegro vivo there are a couple of bars (18:30 in the Honeck performance) where many conductors indulge in a gratuitous unmarked rallentando. Happily, neither Honeck nor Mravinsky are so indulgent, beyond a very slight momentary broadening of the tempo. In the concluding pages Honeck is quicker and, on the face of it, more exciting than Mravinsky though the restraint and iron discipline of the Russian’s conducting brings its own rewards.

The oboe solo at the start of the Andantino in modo di canzona is played beautifully in the Honeck performance; the Pittsburgh principal, Cynthia Koledo DeAlmeida, plays with great poise. The Leningrad Phil’s oboist is a bit quavering in tone. Honeck’s account of the movement is very successful. Towards the end the bassoon is given the main theme to play. Here we get another example of the artistry of Nancy Goeres. Her tone quality is enviable and she phrases the melody beautifully, investing it with just the right amount of melancholy expression. By contrast, I’m afraid the Leningrad player is prosaic; the solo is played in a straight fashion with little of the freedom or expressiveness that characterise Ms Goeres’ playing. In the third movement Honeck is slightly swifter that Mravinsky. In addition, his left-right violin split pays dividends on the occasions when the pizzicato cascades through the strings from one section to another. In the Meno mosso section Mravinsky is more deliberate than Honeck and his performance sounds rather po-faced in comparison with the twinkle in Honeck’s eye. Only one thing stops me from declaring Honeck a clear winner in this movement: some fussy, unmarked quiet dynamics for a few bars near the end (4:52).

Honeck and the Pittsburghers get the finale off to an explosive start, though Mravinsky is even more incendiary. However, it’s not long before Honeck’s penchant for fussy dynamics is again evident (0:25). When the theme is presented in the minor (1:32) Honeck follows convention by easing the tempo somewhat, but again he distracted me with fussy dynamics. Mravinsky slows only a fraction at this point and, thankfully, he trusts Tchaikovsky’s marked dynamics. I found Honeck’s account of the finale to be exciting overall and in the closing pages he whips up the tempo to fever pitch. Mravinsky, however, is electrifying from start to finish in this movement and the virtuosity and discipline of the Leningrad Philharmonic has one gasping. When the fate fanfare reappears it’s a dramatic moment in the Honeck performance but in Mravinsky’s hands the effect is shattering. Like Honeck, Mravinsky also brings the symphony home in a quick-fire blaze but because he started from a swifter basic tempo, he doesn’t need to press on the accelerator in the same fashion that Honeck does.

There’s a great deal to admire in Honeck’s performance of the Fourth Symphony and the Pittsburgh Symphony plays it marvellously. Honeck certainly made me think anew about this familiar masterpiece and that’s a very good thing. Unfortunately, I do find some of his decisions regarding dynamics not only controversial but downright distracting; they might have worked well in live performance – indeed, I found them intriguing the first time I listened – but I’m far from convinced that they stand up to the scrutiny of repeated hearing on a recording. And, at the end of the day, though there were certain elements of Honeck’s performance that I preferred to Mravinsky’s, the old maestro still reigns supreme.

The documentation accompanying this release is comprehensive and interesting. There’s an extremely detailed note by Manfred Honeck about the Tchaikovsky and there are also shorter but valuable notes about Jonathan Leshnoff’s concerto by the composer and by the two soloists. Finally, I should say that both works have been recorded superbly by the Boston recording company, Soundmirror. I listened to this SACD using the stereo layer and I was seriously impressed. There’s a wide dynamic range; soft music registers ideally whilst the loud passages open up excitingly. The left-to-right and front-to-back perspectives are excellent and no detail goes unobserved in this first-rate recording.

John Quinn



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