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.
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: