Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4, Leshnoff Double Concerto — Manfred Honeck/ Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra — Reference Recordings fresh!

by | Jul 16, 2020 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 4 in f, Op. 36; LESHNOFF: Double Concerto for Clarinet and Bassoon – Michael Rusinek, cl/ Nancy Goeres, bn/ Pittsburgh Sym. Orch./ Manfred Honeck – Reference Recordings fresh! Multichannel SACD FR-738SACD, 61:10 *****: 

Honeck and company just keep churning out the hits. I’m not sure how much the current pandemic crisis is going to affect ongoing efforts—probably a lot—but tasty treats like this one sure whet the appetite for when things get back to normal.

It was a bit of a quantum leap for Tchaikovsky to write this symphony, completed in 1878, in the wake of a failed marriage and under the patronage of Nadezhda von Meck, a woman with whom he had developed an artistic and emotional affinity. This relationship, almost a joint effort in musical collaboration, pitted the genius of the composer with the equally important financial contributions of the patron. The now-called “Fate” symphony was miles away from the “Polish” no. 3, which was not that far removed in advancement from the “Little Russian” no. 2. But here Tchaikovsky is upping the ante greatly, using the opening motive of the symphony as a sort of leitmotiv reappearing all through the first movement, one of the largest symphonic structures to that point in time. The genius resides in the fact of his eliminating or at least sublimating the tension of the first movement with the geniality of the next two and finishing with a rollicking finale that almost—almost—negates the seriousness of the first movement.

The composer was also finding it increasingly difficult to remain within the confines of sonata form, that bedrock of classicism that so defined western music for 160 years. Tchaikovsky burst the seams, redefining the nature of the form to accept a mostly psychological, as opposed to architectural, structure. The overwhelming desire was to let the music unfold in a manner that portrayed the innermost feelings of the composer unshackled. Of all the premieres, only the British were accepting, with nearly universal condemnation of the work’s ostensibly “barbaric” nature.

The composer would have the last word, even if posthumously, as the piece has become an orchestra standard, one of the most popular works in the world, and high on every orchestra’s repertory list. As such, any new recording needs to have something different going for it, as there have been so many fabulous offerings over the last 60 years. I am pleased to report—and this is hardly new—that the Pittsburghians have accomplished just that. Honeck is rather pointed in this piece in that he makes some decisions that made me take note—sometimes questioningly—about the appropriateness of the emphasis, whether a light ritard, or a stretching of a phrase. But upon reflection, this is exactly what he should be doing, in keeping with the stratagem of doing something differently than what has been done before. Of course, doing it differently means that there must be good reasons for such a move, otherwise the interpretation becomes an exercise in conductorial narcissism. Honeck, always at pains to justify his interpretative schema, does just that again in the booklet notes. He is convincing, both in word and sound.

And speaking of sound, this is another extraordinary winner for the Reference team and those at Soundmirror. Balances are great, depth of volume superb (the percussion and low brass will lift you out of seat) and it can easily be said that these are the best sonics ever heard in this work.

As a splendid disc mate, Jonathan Leshnoff’s Double Concerto is a marvel. It completely flushes any lingering Tchaikovskian remnants from the system in a work with amazing melodic appeal, and virtuosic flourishes that enhance the overall buoyant and lilting feeling of the piece. Both Michael Rusinek and Nancy Goeres display warm, burnished tonal proclivities that are a delight to the ear in this wonderful contrapuntal mélange. 

All in all, a splendid release!

—Steven Ritter  

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