* BEETHOVEN: Sym. No. 5 in c, Op. 67; & No. 7 in A, Op. 92 – Pittsburgh Sym. Orch./ Manfred Honeck – Reference Recordings multichannel SACD FR-718, 71:27 [Distr. By Naxos] *****:
Ever since fate came knocking at the door of Carlos Kleiber’s Musikverein back in the early seventies, and with the subsequent recording that changed the musical world, conductors have had to tread carefully when daring to couple the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies of Beethoven. No wonder—that recording took the industry by storm, and I still remember the incessant talk and discussion about it among my collegiate confreres at the time. Kleiber was onto something—it’s as if he said this, finally, is the way this thing should go!
Of course, later on when the period movement began we discovered other things about Beethoven’s symphonies too, some so extreme as to inspire laughter among many listeners, and other that made sense, often based on legitimate historical research. Today, when the period movement seems to have cooled a bit, common sense is creeping back into the discussion, and more rational approaches that take the whole of the current and past manifestations of interpretative nuance are coming to the fore. Manfred Honeck is one of these proponents.
Even so, this coupling is a bold and gutsy statement, because everyone will compare it with Kleiber as the yardstick, and rightfully so. As Honeck played under Kleiber in the second violin section in the Vienna Philharmonic, there is a certain traditional link present. For instance, unlike virtually every conductor except Kleiber, Honeck makes the final notes of the Allegretto movement in the Seventh pizzicato; he tells us in the excellent notes that Kleiber got this from his father Erich, who said he found it that way in the manuscript score, which has now been lost, and that there is no reason to doubt the veracity of Kleiber senior.
Honeck also takes the period advances into consideration (generally quick tempos), but is not hesitant to use expressive devices found in ages past. For instance, the opening of the first movement of the Fifth is quite drawn out and powerful like many conductors of the previous age. Honeck justifies this based on passages found in Schindler’s biography of Beethoven (he was practically his personal secretary), but despite the reference most people hearing this will think of it as a throwback gesture. And there are other places as well that feel somewhat willful, though in the good sense of the term as the moments fit beautifully into the overall scheme.
Pittsburgh is still the best kept secret among American orchestras, easily as good as any other ensemble active on the national scene, and this recording proves it. Even with a formidable Beethoven tradition in play, and with equally formidable competition in the catalog, this release, with its illuminating and brilliant surround sound, takes pride of place among the best available, an audiophile’s delight.