************ MULTICHANNEL DISC OF THE MONTH ************

A modern milestone recording for a work you thought you knew.

TCHIAKOVSKY: Symphony No. 6 in b, Op. 74 “Pathetique”; DVORAK: Rusalka Fantasy (arr. Honeck/Ille) – Reference Recordings multichannel HDCD SACD FR-720, 67:03 [Distr. by Naxos [5/13/16] *****:

What a steal the Pittsburgians came up with when they snagged Manfred Honeck! There are few conductors these days with his knowledge of repertory and consistently thoughtful explorations into the canon that are so aptly demonstrated in the program notes to his Reference Recordings releases. I have always said that the PSO is the unsung hero of American orchestras; while the “big five” seem to be constantly swaying to and fro with ups and downs of consistent playing and change of orchestral sound and technical ability, Pittsburgh, at least as shown on record, remains as adept and formidably ingrained in the American musical scene as any orchestra we have, never having seemed to lose their standards, despite the vagaries of conductors who have held the helm. Somehow, through it all, they remain the simple standard bearers of excellence no matter who is conducting them. Honeck however, despite the storied and starry roster of pervious conductors, is something special.

Tackling Tchaikovsky’s last and in many ways most controversial symphony, is never an easy task. Oh it can be played simply enough, and many orchestras do just that; but understanding the position of each movement in the context of the whole takes a signal grace, and there are a lot of recordings out there that don’t get it. Bernstein’s last for instance, though I love it dearly, is not for everyday consumption, the conductor attempting to serve as an avatar for the composer. It works, but only for him, and never to be emulated again. My favorites outside this particular example are Ormandy (Sony), perhaps Tchaikovsky’s greatest modern interpreter, and Giulini (EMI), still one of the most riveting recordings around. In fact, Honeck most reminds me of him, but with sound possibilities outside of Giulini’s experience.

That the orchestra plays magnificently on this release is a given. What separates it from the pack is the almost linked sense of inevitability that marks each phrase, and each movement to the next. We have all heard this so many times that something is needed to jar the expectations out of the mundane and casual and back into the exceptional and mystic. Honeck shapes and guides the work like the evangelist in a Bach passion; there is a constant sense of foreboding even in the more exultant passages, all leading to the final death knell so vividly portrayed by the composer in the last pages. With Honeck, we have to be involved emotionally; the funeral is happening, and we cannot view it simply from a distance, but are the relatives of the deceased—humanity.

If this sounds depressing, well, it is to a certain extent, but this is what Tchaikovsky, who was beginning to question if he had lost his stuff in the creative process, wants us to feel. The previous two symphonies, in their own way, all lead to this symphony, these moments of resignation after so much struggle and questioning. No doubt, had he lived — and he assumed he would — hope would have been restored after so devastating a work. But it was not to be, and we are left with this final testament.

Fortunately on record we are relieved somewhat with the beauties and felicities of Dvorak’s Rusalka, one of the more popular operas going today, and wonderfully manifested by Honeck’s conception of a suite. It is placed perfectly after the Tchaikovsky, ending the concert on a positive note!

This is an outstanding release in all facets, and if you love this piece you simply have to hear it.

—Steven Ritter