What surer test of a conductor's interpretive acumen, an orchestra's virtuosity, a recording engineer's technical wizardry than the orchestral music of Richard Strauss? So it's not surprising that Reference Recordings would choose Strauss' three most popular tone poems to inaugurate its new partnership with music director Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Of course, any new recording of these oft-recorded works comes into direct competition with some of the most famous performances of all time. The Strauss recordings made by Fritz Reiner in Chicago, Herbert Von Karajan in Berlin, Rudolph Kempe in Dresden, and Zubin Mehta in Los Angeles — all recorded in state-of-the-art stereo — have yet to be equaled in their authority, dramatic intensity, and dynamic orchestral control.
If Honeck doesn't quite match that high standard, his interpretations are not so easily dismissed either. Honeck is a genuine Romantic, and he brings to this music a refreshingly individual point of view that registers most tellingly in the Death and Transfiguration. Most conductors, even some of the best, tend to approach this score cautiously given its potential for bombast; Honeck takes it right over the top. I've rarely heard the individual episodes so intensely and expressively characterized: from the dying man's fluttering heartbeat to his final ascent and transcendence. Honeck really doubles down on the dissonance and violence of the death throes, but he's also quite tender in communicating the serenity of the dying man's past memories. And the ending, so often banal or melodramatic, is here completely convincing: a steady, graceful ascent into the light. Honeck's Til Eulenspiegel is no comic prankster, but an insolent, sometimes malicious rogue who, like the composer himself, takes great pleasure in shocking the bourgeoisie. At 14'35" this performance is on the brisk side, but it's also very exciting. With extreme contrasts between fast and slow, the Don Juan cuts a dashing figure, but for me this performance doesn't quite hang together. As well executed as it is, Honeck seems just a shade lightweight, especially when compared to Reiner and Kempe.
Though it is hard to live in the shadow of the "Big Five" (New York, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia), the Pittsburgh has long been and remains one of America's great symphony orchestras. But since its golden age under the baton of the underappreciated William Steinberg (1952-1976), it's been mostly a way station for conductors on their way up (Mariss Jansons) or down (Andre Previn, Lorin Maazel). Recently it's been in the hands of the dependable but unexciting Andrew Davis and the dependable but stolid Marek Janowski. With Manfred Honeck's appointment in 2007, the orchestra is clearly back on course. The playing here is electric, thrilling. One can sense the musicians on the edge of their seats, giving Honeck everything they have: delicacy as well as power.
As I've had occasion to say in the past (just last month in fact), no company produces more realistic orchestral sound than Reference Recordings. I remember an audio show where the RR recording of Bruckner's Ninth (by the Minnesota Orchestra and its then Music Director Stanislaw Skrowaczewski) seemed to be thundering out of every available listening room. Here again the sound is state-of-the-art: the soundstage wide and deep; the upper register finely detailed, but warm and glowing; the bass rich and visceral. As most audiophiles already know, there's nothing clinical or gimmicky about RR recordings; the orchestra sounds completely natural. Close your eyes, and you're first balcony center with the orchestra spread out in front of you. Manfred Honeck is an inspirational leader just coming into his prime, and I predict his tenure with the Pittsburgh Orchestra will be an exciting one. That RR will be there to document their partnership with two recordings a year is very good news indeed.
And so: an excellent Death and Transfiguration, a very good Til Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, and a wayward, but compelling Don Juan, brilliantly performed in demonstration-quality sound. If you're looking to take your system out for a whirl, this is just the recording to do it with.
Death and Transfiguration:
Til Eulenspegiel's Merry Pranks: