Beethoven Symphony No. 9 – Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra/ Manfred Honeck – Reference Recordings

by | Apr 19, 2021 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 9 in d – Christina Landshamer, s/ Jennifer Johnson Cano, ms/ Werner Gura, t/ Shenyang, b/ Pittsburgh Sym. Orch./ Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh/ Manfred Honeck – Reference Recordings Multichannel SACD FR-741, 63:48 *****:

This disc should come with a warning label. Why? Because it is easily the most intense Ninth I have ever heard. This is not a criticism, only a fact. It is born from a view of Beethoven’s last symphonic opus that insists on the ultimate coherent unity of the work that is far more than four separate movements. In Manfred Honeck’s world, this piece’s four movements are really one symphonic utterance, and impossible to segregate into a simple construct linking four disparate sections and calling it a day, as in so many other symphonic utterances.

Part of this seems self-obvious; the first three movements all get quoted in the last, implying that the composer felt that, while perhaps not directly linked as motives, they certainly were linked emotionally. Therefore, the context almost predetermines that which we finally hear in the last, climatic choral finale, foreshadowed in many ways in the previous sections. If one takes this approach—and it does make a lot of sense—the interpretative nuances found in these first movements must in some way reflect the final apotheosis, cathartic and resolved from the hinted chaos that starts the whole work. 

To emphasize this linkage, Honeck pays special attention to tempi and accent, two things that are often overlooked, or at least subjugated, in other performances. Yet, his approach is well-considered and highly evocative, shedding light on the many instances that the combination of Beethoven’s tempo markings, accents, and scoring intersect. The conductor is of the opinion that nothing written in this symphony is insignificant or routine; everything has meaning, and sometimes multiple meanings that demand careful attention and significant thought. This is most noted in the last movement, where Honeck uses the natural flow of the text itself as a guiding light to the passage of the entire finale. After all, we do know that the composer was wedded to the text because of some of the changes he made, and like most classical and romantic composers of the time, made music to fit the emotions and sense of the words, as opposed to writing music and setting text to it later, as so many popular composers have.

You will notice fast tempi in this version, though it is by no means cavalier or a simple performance trick to show what Beethoven’s tempo markings were really like. For that, go to Roger Norrington’s London Classical Players recording on EMI where everything is deadly clock-like and routine, devoid of emotion and feeling, almost as if to simply make a kind of performance practice point. These tempos here are consistent and considered and fit the overall scheme to a tee. The wonderful last movement gives us a truly joyful and energetic flow of consolation and satisfaction, jam-packed with intensity and far, far away from the “joyful, joyful, we adore thee” utterances too often heard in this work that reflect more of a congregational hymn than the all-encompassing, almost unbearable foray into the transcendent feeling that Beethoven wanted in this last, great, and perhaps greatest of all symphonies.

Telling you that the Pittsburgh forces are wonderful, stunning, and recorded in fantastic, best-ever sound has almost become routine when considering their releases. But I would be doing them a great disservice by not saying it. Honeck’s notes are also superb and instructive as to why he does what he does. You can’t really have only one Ninth Symphony—the work’s profundity disallows that, and I will still return to Furtwangler Lucerne 1954, Karajan 1962-63, and Bernstein’s Vienna reading. But this one adds something new and illuminating, with sound these former conductors could only dream of. Fabulous!

—Steven Ritter 

For more information, visit the Reference Recordings fresh! Website:


Logo Reference Recording FRESH!




Related Reviews
Logo Pure Pleasure
Logo Crystal Records Sidebar 300 ms
Logo Jazz Detective Deep Digs Animated 01