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