Another stunner from Pittsburgh.
BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 6 in F, “Pastoral”; STUCKY: Silent Spring – Pittsburgh Sym. Orch./ Manfred Honeck – Reference Recordings multichannel SACD FR747SACD, 58:02 *****:
Honeck continues his Beethoven traversal with maybe his best effort yet. The Pastoral is a tricky thing to pull off for many conductors, who often struggle with the Waterloo second movement, and seem uncertain of its relationship to the whole. It is also interesting that to justly evaluate the success of this first movement, one must get through the second to see how this puzzle fits together. In other words, your impression of the first movement might change after hearing the second!
This symphony ends the first creative efforts of the composer in the symphonic realm. Indeed, pairing this piece with the Fifth Symphony (they were premiered together in a massively long concert in 1808) must have come as a shock to those who heard it for the first time, “fate knocking on the door” only to then repose in the country by a brook. This shows the remarkable creative genius of the composer whose symphonic output doesn’t move in a continuum, aside from the fact of using a similar orchestral setup. For instance, in Bruckner we tend to look for a continual progression of development in style and substance, while Beethoven, whose output was by no means confined to the symphonic, takes each challenge as a distinctively unique and “standalone” effort.
Is this one of the first tone poems in music? Perhaps, as the composer stated that everyone will hear in it what he or she wishes. His mentor Haydn had already given hints of this philosophy in many of his works. But the indications in the score coupled with the visceral aural depictions of the noted events certainly lead to this conclusion. The symphony contains his “impressions” of country life, and as he pointed out the physical location of his inspiration to Anton Schindler, the case seems clear.
But what about these tricky movement relationships? There is simply no other symphony by Beethoven that is as dependent on these, with perhaps the exception of the Ninth Symphony. As mentioned, success revolves around the second movement. I have always taken seriously Otto Klemperer’s utterance when asked about tempo in movement two: slow enough that it cannot be taken in four, and fast enough that the beat cannot be subdivided. Bruno Walter has previously set the standard for me, in his beautiful stereo recording on Sony, but there are other successful recordings as well, each may have his or her favorite. Honeck, in this well-considered and perfectly played release, might have set a new standard, and it is not of the Walterian mode. The first movement seemed too quick to me at first, but then settled into the joy of arriving in the country after the troubles of the city instead of my earlier assumption that the outing was simply for a leisurely nap. “Leisurely” need not mean “lethargically”, and Honeck manages to convey tranquility while imbuing the movement with a sense of anticipation and renewed energy, certainly what the composer had in mind.
The “Scene by the Brook” is on the quicker side, but Honeck imparts a revelatory aspect to this piece. Instead of focusing on the “relaxed” aspects of this flowing brook, he instead brings out the underlying motion of the water that supplies the relaxation. I have never heard, in any recording, the undulating and pulsative movement of the water, the foundational undergirding that allows the magnificent birdsong to soar so beautifully. By removing the issue of simple tempo from the equation, Honeck has invited us to contemplate the many other aspects of dynamic intrusions and emphasis, as well as a renewed sense of lyricism that propels this movement.
The third and fourth movements, merry country folk dancing, and the later thunderstorm, are inextricably linked. The first has a unique insertion in the form of the orchestra members “stomping” their feet in time with the music! It’s not as egregious as it seems; in fact, you might not even realize it if the album notes didn’t mention it. And that is how it should be—an effect that mysteriously adds to the whole, without drawing undue attention to itself. In the storm movement, attention is sufficiently paid to the several instances of stirring effect, indicated by Beethoven’s expanded orchestral forces, and in particular the piccolo (which Honeck also uses to amazing effect in doubling the flute in the first movement). The turbulence and sense of disruption is a perfect antidote to the earlier revelry.
Lastly, and maybe most important, is the veritable ecstasy of movement five. This expresses the composer’s own sense of deity and glory given not to nature, but the to creator of nature. The pastoral variations and almost chorale-like orchestral singing leads this country excursion to a profound and nearly worshipful conclusion regarding mankind’s communing with God through nature. Honeck misses no opportunity to emphasize this festive and calming sense of gratitude and pilgrimage. Perhaps only a day in the country, but one that will not be forgotten.
After this incredible experience, we are launched into an entirely different world with Steven Stucky’s Silent Spring. This piece finds its inspiration in the 1962 book (first serialized in the New Yorker magazine) of the same name. It’s author, celebrated marine biologist and native Pittsburgher Rachel Carson, spearheaded conversations about conservation and the environment, especially important in that time of so many scientific findings, and the beginning of the serious post-war period in America. The Pittsburgh Symphony commissioned the piece, which Honeck and forces premiered in 2012. Stucky has created a four-section one-movement tone poem based on Carson’s titles: The Sea Around Us, The Lost Wood, Rivers of Death, and Silent Spring. In doing so, Stucky evokes emotional thoughts and images of scientific and spiritual inferences that he finds in Carson’s writings in music of gripping effectiveness. But he does not want the listener to make too many concrete associations. As he says, “[music] cannot—should not try to—explain, preach, proselytize, comment on external life… But music aspires to grant us access to our deepest emotional planes, to that region where—beyond words, beyond numbers, beyond theories and proofs—we live or fullest lives.” Amen to that.
The sound on this recording, produced by the ever-dependable people at Soundmirror, is incredibly rich and detailed, wanting for nothing. I am getting rather tired of so many raves for the recordings coming from Reference. But I just can’t help it, and neither, it seems, can they.