R. STRAUSS: Ein Heldenleben; ALAN FLETCHER: Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra and VERDI: Overture to “La Forza del Destino” – Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Michael Rusinek, clarinet/Manfred Honeck cond. – Exton

by | Nov 18, 2008 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

R. STRAUSS: Ein Heldenleben; ALAN FLETCHER: Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra and VERDI: Overture to “La Forza del Destino” – Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Michael Rusinek, clarinet/Manfred Honeck cond. – Exton Multichannel SACD OVCL-00338, 76:35; Performance ***** Sound ****:

It should be noted that this disc was recorded live in Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh on May 9-11, 2008 with Manfred Honeck – the new Music Director of the PSO – on the podium. After the initial baleful blast of the brasses the strings of the PSO with a beautifully silvery sound offer a very sharp chamber music contrast to the larger orchestral forces needed to complete the introduction. At this point it is obvious that a real technical and stylistic challenge to any orchestra and conductor was placed here by Verdi with the PSO rising to the occasion and demonstrating superlative ensemble qualities. The sweet velvety quality of the violin I and II sections is remarkable at this point. Honeck’s concept in conducting obviously follows Verdi’s Presto mark for the overture with that “urgent” twist which was common in Verdi’s time; it reminded me of Beethoven’s Sforzando and “urgent” admonitions for his Symphony No. 3 first movement which are added to the Allegro con brio. This urgent attitude articulated from the beginning of this overture remains throughout the whole work without letting up and it’s here where the great difference with most others performances I have heard lies.

Most conductors excluding the late Arturo Toscanini, and Pierino Gamba, Valery Gergiev and Honeck (with their great operatic experience), articulate this overture from the beginning as a pure symphonic piece. Their Presto is more a symphonic forte or fortissimo which is not the same. In my experience that produces a moody meditational music and I am sure that is not what Verdi ever intended. Honeck’s handling of the overture is still within the boundaries of Verdi’s classical operatic “bloody” drama which is represented by the Latin word sottile (graceful and tender). There is much grace and tenderness in his rendition, which demands total tonal harmonic control from the conductor and orchestra. His realization contains all the gore and drama that Verdi envisioned for his operatic conflict. We must remember that La Forza del Destino was the most violent and bloody of Verdi’s operas – in the end everybody dies!

Honeck amply demonstrates his dash and ardor as well as enduring energy and refined sense of color in the execution of this score. His successful handling of strong contrasts of timbre and dynamics finds in the PSO a group that plays on with gusto to the last chord. Kudos to Honeck and the PSO for their assertive attitude in respect to Verdi’s intentions even if it is obvious that they did not use a Cimbasso as per Verdi’s instrumentation – instead a contrabass trombone and a C tuba, which played some critical chords in unison to great effect and acoustic impact. If nothing else, these eight minutes are worth the price (very high – almost $ 50, as a Japanese import) of this disc. This is the best rendition of this overture I have ever heard on record or live in my life.

Alan Fletcher received a commission from the PSO to write this clarinet concerto for Michael Rusinek (their principal clarinet) in 2005 and finished it in 2007. It consists of three movements (tracks 2-4) and its obvious that this piece was scored for Rusinek the individual as well as for several other principals: the oboe, flute, bassoon and violin – who also have very important albeit smaller solos within the work. The technical and stylistic demands on the clarinetist are great with many passages within the concerto offering Rusinek plenty of opportunities to display his dexterity as well as his melodic-romantic sensibility. The second movement, a slow andante, being the place where he is able to display some beautiful, graceful and tender phrasing, specially when playing concertante to the full orchestra. It is an intelligent score for master clarinetists and Rusinek amply fits that description. Highly recommended!

Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life)
is one of Strauss’ most ambitious and heavily orchestrated works with Eine Alpensymphonie being the only one that surpasses it in magnitude. At times more than one hundred players are engaged in producing music of considerable intricacy, that is, difficult parts for the different ensembles but particularly the brasses. At times a solo violin – Andrés Cárdenes, the Concertmaster – has to perform several difficult pyrotechnical passages much like in a first-rank violin concerto, resolving his part with much finesse. At others the big tuba is required to surprise everybody with unexpected solos while the horns (eight required) have the most difficult of all parts with their extensive intervention.

Strauss’ is a score with much richness and complexity which requires a conductor with great technique to impart realism to the performance and to bring out all the intricate inner voices of the work. Honeck, first with a broad and expansive introduction and then fast tempos, successfully manages to overcome those which for lesser orchestras and conductors are major obstacles. This is a work with devilish demands on the players, requiring a disciplined conductor to control what can become musical chaos if not phrased correctly; Honeck amply fills that part.  His chosen tempos, while faster than the norm, opt to concentrate in the meaning of all those things (orchestrally) that make this work such a wonder. Clarity of line and phrasing are obvious in very pleasant albeit unexpected ways. This is a score that defines an orchestra and its conductor and I have to conclude in the end that it is a brilliant reading that for once gets us closer to Strauss’ feelings about orchestral sounds in general. Great performance!

There is more than enough energy and emotion in Honeck’s conducting which clear the way for these three pieces’ difficult details in the orchestration to see the light properly – these are three brilliant readings. It should also be noted that the high-res surround sound of this generous-length SACD is restricted to five channels only and of that the front speakers carry just about all the sound  with the rear speakers providing a faint sense of acoustics to the point of being almost negligible. The fine acoustics of Heinz Hall are not felt at all unless you raise the surround level, and that’s the reason for a slightly lesser grade.

— John Nemaric


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