R. Strauss: Elektra & Der Rosenkavalier Suites (SACD review)

Manfred Honeck, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Reference Recordings Fresh! FR-722SACD.

Over the past few years I've had the pleasure of listening to several recordings by Maestro Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony. While the performances have had strong competition in the catalogue, Honeck's interpretations have held their own; and while I have not always enjoyed the live sound from Pittsburgh as much as others have, it has always sounded better to me than most live recordings. With this Richard Strauss album, however, the performances seem stronger and the sound a bit more rounded and lifelike, making it clearly the best thing I've yet to hear from Honeck and company. It's worth a listen.

First up on the program is a symphonic suite from the opera Elektra by German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949). Strauss collaborated with Austrian librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal to adapt the work from a 1902 drama and to premiere it in 1909. Here, we get the world premiere of a suite from the work, the suite conceptualized by Mr. Honeck and realized by Tomas Ille.

The opera came at a time when the classical world was just beginning to embrace the atonality and dissonance so favored by modernist composers. As such, although Elektra may have found its roots in ancient Greek mythology, the music is decidedly modern and expressionist. In fact, the suite makes a striking contrast with the piece that follows it on the disc, a suite from Der Rosenkavalier, which more closely adheres to the Romantic traditions of the previous century.

Manfred Honeck
So, how does Honeck handle the score for Elektra, which he had a hand in writing? I have to admit here that Elektra is not among my favorite operas, and I had never heard just the orchestral music before. The suite under Maestro Honeck gives me a new appreciation for the piece. Although as a whole the piece sounds a tad disjointed, usual for a suite I suppose, there is a wonderful sense of ebb-and-flow to the score; and although Strauss was certainly experimenting with modern musical idioms, at least under Honeck it appears to take root in elements of the previous century as well. So the work swells with tensions without overflowing in discordances. In fact, Honeck is able to hold it all together for a little over half an hour in an amiable fashion. Conflicts and resolutions come and go, yet the score seems fairly cohesive, the conductor able to patch over any potential disconnects with admirable alacrity.

The second item on the program is a suite (arranged by conductor Artur Rodzinski in 1945) from Strauss's romantic opera Der Rosenkavalier, a piece that premiered in 1911. With its wealth of lush melodies and lavish waltzes, the music couldn't be more different from that of Elektra. Here, Honeck is as exuberant with the score as he was eloquent in Elektra. The music is justifiably popular, and Honeck presents it well; i.e., with unashamed enthusiasm for its late-flowering Romanticism. Moreover, the orchestra responds splendidly to both suites: disciplined, refined, keen, and glowing.

Producer Dirk Sobotka and engineer Mark Donahue of Soundmirror, Boston recorded the music live at the Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts, Pittsburgh, PA in May 2016. They made it for hybrid SACD playback, so one can listen to multichannel or two-channel stereo on an SACD player or two-channel stereo on a regular CD player. I listened in two-channel SACD.

There is an enormous dynamic range involved, which we might expect from this source and from the very slightly close-up live recording involved. Overall room ambience seems just a tad diminished, too, but the proximity of the microphones to the instruments definitely helps with clarity. Most important, things are not overly close, the sound is not at all bright or edgy, and there is a cozy warmth that accompanies it. One hardly notices the audience, and the engineers have thankfully removed any applause. The sonics are still not quite as realistic to my ears as most of Reference Recordings' studio projects, but they will undoubtedly satisfy and thrill most listeners.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa