Music Reviews

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 & Schulhoff: Five Pieces

The 45+ Minutes of Honeck and the Pittsburghers is All You Need

If we were to play all the existing recordings of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, including re- and re-re-mastered versions, we would have to devote (by my rough estimate) 9180 minutes or 19 eight-hour working days of our precious time to complete the effort. Don’t waste it. The 45 minutes of Honeck and the Pittsburghers is all you need; their effort is for keeps! 

It is suggested that, unlike his two preceding symphonies, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth has no programme. It may not be a programme as fashionable in those days, but in one of his sketches, Tchaikovsky gives an outline, copied in the liner notes, that comes close: “Introduction: Complete surrender to fate or, which is the same thing, to the unfathomable counsel of Providence”.  Interestingly, there are differing translations of the Russian text: “A complete resignation before fate, which is the same as the inscrutable predestination of fate”, and “Total submission before destiny or, which is the same, before the inevitable predestination of Providence”. They are similar, but not the same. Is it of real importance? I think so. If linguistics do not translate a text in the same way, the same applies to conductors in their reading of the score, as Honeck proves most characteristically in this new release.

Enhancing the intellectual charge of the score

From his instructive notes, it is clear that Maestro Honeck has not only studied the score of the Fifth Symphony in the minutest detail but also that he has set it off against Tchaikovsky’s personal feelings as expressed above. In doing so, he adds what in his view needs to be added to unravel and enhance the intellectual charge of the score. Or, as he writes in his notes (first movement): “I have taken the liberty of creating a dynamic wave, first dropping the sound level and then immediately growing with a large crescendo to add dramatic emphasis as the music propels forward.” And in the final movement: “It is almost as if fate is continuously in conflict with the euphoria. In an effort to emphasize this contrast, I have asked for a subtle stretching of the semitone step”. Purists may not agree, as there are no markings to that end in the score. In a similar vein, purists may not have agreed with Yevgeny Mrawinsky, whose Leningrad Tchaikovsky readings (DGG) drew nonetheless widespread admiration. 

Demonstrating a level of insight that only few can hope to achieve.

In my view, Honeck and Mrawinsky have in common the ability to create, each with their individual yet gripping reading, a performance that does full justice to the required ‘unfathomable counsel of Providence’. Adding the extra passionate mile to the score without ‘trespassing’ the spiritual gist. This is, I dare say, the crux of a magical interpretation; demonstrating a level of insight that only few can hope to achieve. 

Reading the liner notes is like anticipating the music.

I suggest listeners download the booklet before listening. It is of great help because reading the liner notes is like anticipating the music in all its glorious aspects. Honeck writes what Tchaikovsky asks for and what he, Honeck, does in each of the movements to fusion markings and spirit. I wonder how many conductors would have the nerve to do the same. 

This new reading is so brilliantly ‘orchestrated’ that I found myself hooked from the very beginning when the lower strings, clarinets and bassoons emerge out of nothing like a sombre and heavily menacing mist that keeps coming back in various disguises in the course of the symphony and cannot be pushed away: Fate! Manfred Honeck builds tension and brings coherence to what might be seen as a melting pot of ideas, stretching from high hopes to low expectations, contradicting moods and conflicting rhythms, anguish and optimism.  

It was only after ‘Fate’ ended in optimism at the conclusion of the final movement and several minutes of silence thereafter that I listened to other High-Resolution and two of my best Red Book CD versions for comparison. None could erase my fresh memory of this latest RR Fresh! Recording. 

I won’t say that there are no other good accounts, however small that list is, but some of the ones that qualify suffer from a low-quality stereo recording.

Like the best French winemakers, Soundmirror captured the full flavour.

Concluding his structural outline for this symphony, Tchaikovsky wrote: “The programme is excellent, as long as I can make it happen”. Manfred Honeck has rendered him that service with remarkable skill and the superb tools at his disposal. Firstly, an orchestra that can follow and implement even the most intense impulses of a demanding Master with flying colours (The Gramophone is running a contest for The World’s Best Orchestra. The PSO is not on their shortlist. Unforgivable!); secondly, having probably the best sound engineering in the world: Soundmirror of Boston. Seen through French eyes, the Sobotka/Donahoe combination operates like the best French winemakers: Capturing the full flavour using the best technical means, whilst remaining within the limits of the art.

A spine-chilling account

Tchaikovsky is obviously the prominent feature, but there is another ‘Fate’ of a different nature. Little did Erwin Schulhoff know about his future when he composed the Five dance-like character Pieces for String Quartet. Having been arrested and interned by the Germans just before he tried to escape to the Soviet Union, he died at the age of 48 of tuberculosis contracted in a German prisoner-of-war camp. Listening to the arrangement for full orchestra by the Czech composer (and classical guitar player) Tomáš Ille and PSO’s Music Director Manfred Honeck, I was struck by its ominous nature and wondered why Schulhoff’s love of dancing as projected in these 5 pieces sounded to me as though they had been willingly or unwillingly moulded into a spine-chilling account. Was it in memory of a talented composer whose work was brushed aside as ‘Entartete Musik’ (degenerated music) by the Nazi Regime? Whatever the case, I was thoroughly impressed. This quasi-world premiere recording is a real challenge for a conductor and all sections of the orchestra and as such another proof of what can be achieved with nothing but the best ingredients at hand. 

Blangy-le-Château, Normandy, France.

Copyright © 2023 Adrian Quanjer and

Written by

Adrian Quanjer

Adrian Quanjer is a site reviewer at HRAudio, with many years of experience in classical music. He writes from his country retreat at Blangy-le-Château, France. As a regular concertgoer, he prefers listening to music in the highest possible resolution to recreate similar involvement at home. He is eager to share his thoughts with like-minded melomaniacs at NativeDSD.


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