Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 (SACD review)

Also, Dvorak: Rusalka Fantasy. Manfred Honeck, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Reference Recordings Fresh! FR-720SACD.

It seems that the Pittsburgh Symphony's Music Director, Manfred Honeck, wants us to be as fascinated by the mysteries of Tchaikovsky's final symphony as he is. Honeck spends eleven-and-a-half pages of the booklet notes explaining all the various rumors, insinuations, descriptions, and elucidations surrounding the work. You know, did Tchaikovsky write it to foretell his own death, and so on. I'm not sure he needed to go into such detail on the subject, since no one really knows for sure why the composer wrote his last big-scale piece the way he did, but it makes for an interesting and enlightening read.

Anyway, the real question is why we might need yet another recording of a work that conductors have already recorded to death. To answer that, we have to look at several factors, including whether the music is worth performing so often; whether the new interpretation is good enough to warrant buying it; whether the orchestra responds well to it; whether there is value in the coupling; and whether the recorded sound holds up to the listener's standards. Let's take them one at a time.

Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) wrote his Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 "Pathetique" in the last year of his life, and it would be his final work before he died. The ensuing century brought it mounting fame, and today one can hardly doubt its value as one of the late-Romantic period's most-popular works. The title "Pathetique" in Russian means "passionate" or "emotional," which is how most conductors play it--big, bold, and red-blooded. Maestro Honeck, though, generally brings to it a more restrained approach.

The work begins with a fairly lengthy introduction, which Honeck takes in leisurely fashion before moving into the main subject. Then, things build in an agitated fashion, culminating in the music's famous central theme. The first time it appears, Honeck appears to do little with it, and one wonders if the music is ever going to catch fire. But not to worry; about halfway through, Honeck lets the big guns loose, and we know this is Tchaikovsky after all. A very dynamic live recording helps here as well. Honeck ends the movement with an appropriately sedate repose.

Manfred Honeck
The second-movement Allegro con grazia is a waltz, and the third-movement is a zippy scherzo before ending a mournful Finale. Here, Honeck does keep things quite as usual, either. The waltz seems a bit too fast, as though Honeck wanted to get it over with. The scherzo is also quick, which we would expect, although I'm not sure Honeck catches all the fire and passion by taking it quite as speedily as he does. Nevertheless, it's fun. Lastly, Honeck ends the affair with a finale in the same unhurried vein as his first movement.

The Pittsburgh Symphony proves once again that it is among America's top orchestras, ranking right up there near the Boston Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Chicago, New York, and San Francisco Symphonies, among others. Its presence may not be as dominant as some of the illustrious European ensembles from Berlin, Amsterdam, Dresden, Leipzig, and London, but the Pittsburgh ensemble play with precision, and they sound as rich and lush as any you'll find.

In terms of the symphony's coupling, be aware that many discs don't even include additional selections. In Honeck's case, he has chosen to provide a suite, the Rusalka Fantasy, from Antonin Dvorak's opera Rusalka (arranged by Tomas Ille and Honeck himself). Maybe because I've heard the Tchaikovsky done so often by so many conductors, I couldn't appreciate Honeck's performance of it as much as I enjoyed his Dvorak; and I didn't have as much with which to compare the Dvorak. Whatever, Dvorak's music comes off with a delightful charm and joyful grace.

Producer Dirk Sobotka and engineers Mark Donahue and John Newton (all of Soundmirror, Boston) recorded the music live at Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts, Pittsburgh, PA in April 2015. They made it in hybrid SACD to play back in multichannel or two-channel from an SACD player and two-channel from a regular CD player. I listened in two-channel SACD.

The sound they obtained is about what we might expect from a live recording. It's close-up, of course, although not to the extent of some live recordings, and the engineers probably did it to minimize audience noise, making everything sound just a little bigger than life. Dynamics are huge, clarity is excellent, the response appears smooth and well balanced, and the frequencies seem well extended. It's just sort of an irony of live recordings that to me they most often don't sound as "live" as a studio recording (or one without an audience). Compared to the studio productions Reference Recordings have made over the years, this "Fresh!" live one doesn't quite project the dimensions of the concert hall, the ambience, the warmth, or the presence of RR's best non-live discs.

However, that's just me. Other listeners will, I'm sure, disagree and find the sound of this recording a delight--vigorous and detailed. It is certainly more than adequate, and RR have gratefully spared us any applause.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa