Classics Today -
This is an amazing performance, captured in terrific sound. It’s the most savage Bruckner Ninth since Jochum’s Dresden recording on EMI, especially in the terrifying first-movement coda and the positively vicious, swift account of the scherzo.
Honeck’s aided by typically exceptional brass playing, with horns, trumpets, and trombones well-differentiated in timbre, their musical lines clear in even the densest tuttis. The strings, too, make gorgeous sounds in the first movement’s second-subject “song period,” and throughout the Adagio. In the latter, at that special moment when the chorale suddenly breaks in about halfway through, the effect is truly heavenly (but not a bit saccharine).
Still, what makes this recording so extraordinary is the conducting. Many conductors play Bruckner’s music as a succession of discrete blocks, which of course it is, and that’s certainly a legitimate way to do it. Honeck however, again like Jochum and certain others (Furtwängler, to some degree), employs a wide range of tempo within a movement to join the music’s various sections together; but so seamlessly does the music flow forward, and so skillfully does he manage the transitions, that you’re hardly conscious of them.
The timings are deceptive in this regard: 25 minutes in the first movement, nearly 28 in the Adagio, but I can’t recall a performance that so successfully suspends any feeling of time passing. It just “happens”, in such a way that when each movement stops you might find yourself shocked that the end has arrived, seemingly so punctually. For this reason, while Bruckner fans will certainly have to hear this, I can also recommend this release with equal enthusiasm to those who have hitherto found the composer clunky, sluggish, or dull. There’s an organic unity here that’s very special, and wholly unique.
Wall Street Journal
A recording of Manfred Honeck leading the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra shows how one conductor developed his religious concept of the score through repeated study and personal reflection.
Conductor Manfred Honeck has become one of today’s most insightful interpreters of the classics. A regular presence on the world’s most prestigious orchestra podiums, the Austrian maestro has been music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra for more than a decade, where he has made valuable additions to its discography. Since 2014, albums by Mr. Honeck and his musicians for Reference Recordings have garnered seven Grammy nominations, among them a pairing of Shostakovich ’s Fifth Symphony and Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” that won the 2018 Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance and Best Engineered Album Classical (also available from NativeDSD in Stereo and Multichannel DSD).
Their latest disc is devoted to Bruckner’s Ninth, a long but mesmerizing masterpiece considered to be one of the composer’s finest.
Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony is written in a late Romantic style that shows the influence of Wagner yet points toward the 20th century in some of its harmonic language and structure. Bruckner had completed the first three movements during a period of deteriorating health, dying at age 72 in 1896 before he could finish the fourth. (Mr. Honeck, like most conductors, avoids various scholarly reconstructions created from the composer’s sketches of that section.)
Recorded live at Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh, his Bruckner Ninth is a wondrous achievement. Telling moments abound: the lyrical episodes in the opening movement that seemingly float in the air, the triumphant nobility the conductor summons at the first movement’s conclusion, the tonal colors he coaxes from the strings throughout—early in his career, Mr. Honeck was a violist with the Vienna Philharmonic—to name a few.
The second movement is an agitated scherzo—unusual because symphonic scherzos are typically lighthearted or humorous contrasts to weightier sections. Quieter interludes coexist with a thunderous, pummeling theme in the brass and strings that evoke artillery fire or divine judgment. Mr. Honeck delivers plenty of visceral excitement in this and other passages for the score’s expanded brass section, which includes Wagner tubas.
The slow third movement possesses the kind of yearning beauty that Gustav Mahler subsequently perfected in his more famous adagios. Here, as in other works, Bruckner interrupts his most glorious thematic ideas with pauses and seemingly incidental material that temporarily hinder the momentum. But Mr. Honeck holds it together, bringing numerous musical details into sharper focus and varying subsequent reiterations of the main themes so movingly, from the mournful opening to the gentle lullaby of the movement’s conclusion.
For sheer aural delight, it’s hard to beat the plush, velvety richness of the Berlin Philharmonic brass and strings in their superb 1976 recording under Herbert von Karajan, reissued in June as part of a Bruckner symphony set by Deutsche Grammophon. That said, Karajan’s interpretation now sounds a bit grandiose or overly muscular. And the impressive PSO brass is beautifully balanced throughout, as are the versatile, responsive strings and woodwinds.
Bruckner’s score is dedicated to God and includes the instruction “Miserere” (Have mercy) in a despairing passage near the end of the first movement. Mr. Honeck, also Catholic, brings his familiarity with the liturgy to his interpretation. For example, he envisions the third movement as based on the traditional Latin Mass “Agnus Dei” (Lamb of God) and provides his reasons in detailed liner notes. Others could easily hypothesize different underlying scenarios, but this peek under the hood shows how one conductor developed his concept of a score through repeated study and personal reflection. Helpful track timings are provided to help interested listeners follow along.
During his tenure in Pittsburgh, Mr. Honeck has presented semistaged versions of Handel ’s “Messiah” and Haydn ’s “Creation.” He has enhanced the 123-year-old orchestra’s reputation through regular European tours, including performances at the Salzburg and Lucerne festivals. In May, when he brought the PSO to Lincoln Center, it was the orchestra’s first appearance there in five years; the program included an unforgettable performance of Mahler’s epic Fifth Symphony. His contract was recently renewed through the 2021-22 season, but who knows what the future holds? For now, though, he and his Pittsburgh Symphony players appear to have as much affinity for making music together as they do for sprawling symphonies.
HR Audio.Net -
Reference Recordings may not be the most prolific label, but each new issue in their Fresh! series is an event worth its weight in gold.
Ahead of this year’s European tour of the Pittsburgh Symphony, Soundmirror recorded for Reference Recordings a ‘fresh’ version of Bruckner’s ninth symphony. It will figure, together with Shostakovich’s fifth, as symphonic ‘pièce de résistance’ on the program, taking the orchestra to 10 of the most prestigious European Concert halls.
It is neither the first nor will it be the last recording of Bruckner’s ultimate symphony as it is one of the milestones in the career of any conductor of note. Its sheer complexity demands a clear vision on how to construct such a monument with the building blocks the composer puts at the disposal of the interpreter. Thorough knowledge and deep understanding of both Bruckner’s personality and spirit is a condition sine qua non.
A once well-known and widely respected Dutch writer and lover of classical music, Simon Vestdijk, wrote an essay “De symfonieën van Anton Bruckner” (1965), based on ‘conceptional unity’, an idea advanced by Austrian musicologist, Ernst Kurth, as well as notions of ‘over’ and ‘under’ value in Bruckner’s compositional style. He clinically (before becoming a writer, Vestdijk read medicine at Amsterdam University) analyses each of the symphonies, ranking movements in a ‘qualitative’ order as though to form with the best bits his personal symphony of choice. It may sound like a caricature produced by a charlatan, but I don’t think it was. Genuine research and, of course, personal liking must have played an important role in reaching a final conclusion.
Whilst disregarding the practical usability of Vestdijk’s thoughts in the concert hall, it does demonstrate that views can be unexpectedly different from one expert to another. Some outright admiring, some critical and with so many editions and retrospect corrections by the composer himself, not all is rosy. The most negative qualification I remember having read somewhere is that “Bruckner composed one symphony nine times”. It may, therefore, be clear that hardly any reading of Bruckner’s ninth will be the same and some even boringly frustrating.
Comparing the duration of movements usually is a bad pointer, but it is said that in Bruckner it makes sense, especially in regard of the Adagio. Looking at other three-movement versions, all based on the Nowak edition (1951), one notes that the Adagio of the monumental 1970 recording with Otto Klemperer at the helm of the New Philharmonia Orchestra (Angel LP S-36873) spans 27:12 and Haitink, in a recent well-received LSO release Bruckner: Symphony No. 9 - Haitink needs 27:45 to express his views of the same movement. At the other end, we find the hyper-surround Tacet recording Bruckner: Symphony No. 9 - Keller, doing the Adagio in 23:56. Do I need to say more?
Time to turn to what Honeck has to tell his audience. To understand a work of such length, complexity, and musical importance, knowing the interpreter’s views opens the door to better value the result of his reading. And as with previous recordings, Honeck shares his detailed thoughts in the liner notes with the listener, thus allowing him to take, as it were, a seat at the jury table. I wonder how many conductors would have the courage to do this. But Honeck is a man of inspiring conviction, and what’s more: He plays what he says. Moreover, reading Manfred Honeck’s highly personal (as ever) notes is as an immense pleasure as it is informative; 18 pages of readable and understandable text. I suggest to do this before, and once more, but then only the texts referring to each movement, during listening.
The liner notes tell us that Honeck belongs to the slow-motion masters with a lengthy 27 minutes and 46 seconds of an almost un-worldly sounding Adagio. Only the Scherzo is a shade faster than other top readings. However, the duration is relative, as once explained by another knowledgeable Brucknerian, Sergiu Celibidache, whose ninth is, I must admit, on the whole, many minutes shorter; undermining my suggestion in a previous paragraph! Leaving this aside, I stepped into Horneck’s world with an open mind, letting me be guided by his instructive roadmap.
From his notes, describing how Bruckner participated in lectures on the functioning of the human body, and the composer’s wish to be present at executions, I find confirmation of my feeling that Bruckner lived at and got his inspiration from the borderline between earth and heaven. It made me wonder if that is also the way Honeck wants us to join in his vision of the ninth symphony, moving from the deepest earthly abyss to the highest heavenly divinity. If so, and I think it is, this poor reviewer has the pitiful task to convey in words what he thinks he hears.
Listening to such a wonderful orchestra, led by someone with a clear, albeit very personal vision, words fall indeed short to express the deeply emotional experience. What makes Honeck’s rendition so significant? His ‘special effects’? The dynamics? The sudden changes in mood? The tight control over a hundred or so exceptional players? Well, the performance has to be heard, rather than read about, to be struck by its immensely gripping power, turning many other recordings into bleak collections of noise.
Honeck’s reading of the first movement is not ‘Feierlich’ in the sense of ‘festive’, as a newcomer to this work might suppose. On the contrary. It should, and Honeck does, be taken to mean ‘solemn’ or even ‘grave’, laying bare the apotheoses of Bruckner’s livelong battle against critics and hopes to eventually succeed, and in doing so, to express what Bruckner must have felt and gone through to finally decide to dedicate this symphony to God. Desolation and hope are embodied in stark dynamics set in a judiciously balanced soundscape and finely tuned groups of instruments.
The start of the following Scherzo could easily be mistaken for a pleasantly dance-like melody, but Honeck immediately and carefully unravels the strands of supposed fun into stressed feelings of eerie anguish. Under the baton of Honeck we get 10 minutes of lively, but at times unsettling, pointedly conveyed tragic drama, contrastingly foreboding one of the most captivating Adagios in Bruckner’s oeuvre.
The plaintive strings at the beginning of the Adagio sound to me what Bruckner feared to happen, but wasn’t ready for: death. But at the same time in the firm belief that God’s mercy was awaiting him. In his very personal view, Honeck, for all I know a devout Roman Catholic, like his fellow Austrian countryman, Bruckner, sees a link between the score and the text of the traditional Latin mass Agnus Dei, focusing on ‘peccata mundi’ (the sin of the world) in the first, main theme of the violins, and a large block of ‘miserere nobis’ (have merci upon us) further on. In his notes, Honeck describes in detail to which instruments or group of instruments part of the Latin text are connected, with corresponding instruction on how he wants it to be accentuated.
Different views, different accents, one might say. But even without Honeck’s reasoning, his Adagio gave me a profound feeling of divine accomplishment, wondering if a closing finale would, in fact, be needed. Bruckner did score parts of it in the following years until his death, but health problems prevented him from putting things completely together while a coda is conspicuously missing. Some scholars have tried to ‘complete’ the symphony, and several recordings exist. But it wouldn’t be the same and I’m most grateful that Honeck has refrained from doing so.
Playing it with such commitment is admirable, but recorded by Soundmirror (Mark Donahue), putting everything in proper perspective, giving each individual instrument sufficient room to shine, makes the recording of this live performance in Pittsburgh’s Heinz Hall without any doubt one of the very, if not the best DSD version thus far on offer.
They’ve done it again!
Performance 5 out of 5 Stars
Multichannel DSD Sonics: 5 out of 5 Stars