Honeck and PSO win Record of the Year

Photo: Medici/PR

Record of the Year: Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra win the title for the second consecutive year

In the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s sixth recording of the Pittsburgh live! series, conductor Manfred Honeck and Czech composer Tomáš Ille have once again joined forces (after their 2014 and 2016 collaborations on the Jenufa symphonic suite and the Rusalka Fantasy, featured in the series’ second and fifth recordings) in creating a symphonic suite of Strauss’s opera Elektra. As a counterpart to this dark modernist psychological drama, the CD also features the symphonic suite from Strauss’ well-beloved comic opera, Der Rosenkavalier (arranged by conductor Artur Rodzinski and first performed in 1944), in which Strauss returns to a more classical idiom to conjure up 18th century Vienna.

The Elektra suite, conceptualized by Honeck and realized by Ille, works incredibly well in its instrumental version, revealing a whole new side to Strauss’ 1909 opera, known (like the 1905 Salome) for its highly chromatic, at times almost a-tonal late romantic/ early modern idiom. Honeck has filtered out some of the more dissonant music, and in the absence of screaming sopranos (nothing against them!), the beauty and tenderness of much of this opera’s music is revealed, as in the leitmotifs that represent Elektra’s love for her father and brother. At the same time, Elektra’s vengeful and obsessive side is fully present in fiery brass motifs. Altogether, the result is a very communicative piece that retains the most memorable moments of vengefulness, ritual, triumph and tender feelings of familial love from the original opera, but most interestingly- reveals how much more than customarily assumed this dark opera has in common with der Rosenkavalier and its endless flow of sweet intoxicating melodies.

The CD, recorded by Soundmirror for References Recordings, is yet another Super Audio multi-channel hybrid recording of exceptional quality. Whether you believe in the extra quality of SACD’s or not, the transparency of texture and richness of tone are undeniable, as is the impressive dynamic range. A decision has apparently been made to put the brass instruments in the forefront, which also serves to bring together the two symphony suites, both of which feature brass prominently. The listener is led from Elektra’s fiery horns of revenge straight into the arms of the young lover-cavalier Octavian, whose heroic (sexual) deeds are again depicted by horns, this time in comical guise.

The clarity of recording and attention to detail are apparent from the first chord of Elektra’s Agamemnon motif with which the Elektra suite dramatically begins. Played by the entire orchestra, there is a sort of kaleidoscopic quality to it: first, one hears the harshness of the brass instruments, then, above the rumble of the timpani, the woodwinds in their organ-like quality take on more of a presence, then everything fades and the timpani roll morphs into one note, played only by the cellos and double basses. A whole world of sound contained within a single chord. Thankfully, more and more orchestras are making live concert recordings, with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at the forefront of this return to real time recordings, capturing the orchestra at its most exuberant.

Another welcome feature of the Pittsburgh live! Series (from the second recording onwards) are the detailed booklets written by Honeck himself, containing notes about the pieces, their dramatic content and historical contexts, as well as the conductor’s interpretive decisions. The very personal tone is quite refreshing and makes the booklet a small innovation in its own right.

Honeck is well known for his stylistic sensitivity and definitive interpretive ideas, both of which have apparently evolved during his time as a violin and viola player in the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, where he played under the baton of some of the world’s greatest conductors. His historical approach is most evident in his use of rubato in Der Rosenkavalier, a practice that was prevalent in 19th century Vienna. This, together with the strings’ impressive unity and well-conceived phrasing, creates the fluency that is Honeck’s trademark. The theme of revenge or of sisterly love from Elektra, the playfulness of the complementary “masculine” horn theme and the “feminine” violin theme in the beginning of Der Rosenkavalier- they all come to life, telling a story that has no need for words.