on 31 December 2013
These recordings mark the beginning of a partnership between the PSO/Honeck and Reference Recordings. They were made in Heinz Hall in June 2012. The recording details say nothing about whether the performances were live, but, as the words "Pittsburgh Live!" are emblazoned on the back of the booklet beneath a photo of the orchestra and Music Director, I assume they were.
The recordings give ample testimony to the quality of the PSO. As demonstrations of virtuosity, panache and precision, they could hardly be bettered. Honeck and his players, aided by the engineers, bring out a wealth of instrumental detail, and the conductor's notes to the recording reinforce his concern for revealing nuances. In relation to the conclusion of Don Juan, for example, he advises: "It is here that one can hear the last convulsions of the hero's dying body. This must sound nervous, dreadful and dramatic. For this reason, I took the liberty to alter the usual sound. I ask the strings to gradually transform the tone into an uncomfortable, convulsing, and shuddering ponticello until the final pizzicato marks the hero's last heartbeat." And in relation to the trial scene of Till Eulenspiegel, where the D-clarinet has a note that, according to Strauss, must sound entstellt ("distorted"), Honeck tells us: "The problem with this note is that it is impossible to hear because the whole orchestra enters with a fortissimo. That is why I have this "distorted" note played one octave higher than written. This way, it does not only sound higher, but tremendously entstellt." In Honeck's view, Strauss must have erred in writing this note into the score, as he would surely have intended that it be heard. This seems, on its face, a reasonable proposition, but, then again, Strauss conducted this music - so, why didn't he correct the "error"?
One wonders what Strauss himself would have made of these performances, for they are quite different from his own and indeed from those of other conductors with pedigree in this domain - Reiner, Szell, Kempe, Karajan, Tennstedt, Haitink, Maazel and Blomstedt, to name a few. There is an extroverted, almost cinematic quality to the music making and, yes, an attention to detail that cannot fail to make an impression, but whether that impression ultimately rewards and leads to repeated listening will depend on individual listeners' tastes.
For me, there is a whiff of micro-management and a tendency towards exaggeration that prevents an unqualified recommendation. In comparing Honeck with Tennstedt (LPO) in Don Juan and Tod und Verklarung, for instance, I felt that the latter was more successful in conveying the varying moods of these works without any sense of forced expression, notwithstanding the superior resources available to the former. Again, in comparing Honeck with, say, either of Karajan's last two recordings of Don Juan (DG), what the latter may lack in vivid characterisation is made up by a tighter grip on structure.
In Don Juan (18.33) and Till Eulenspiegel (14.35), Honeck's interventions are not such a problem because of the nature of the music and the larger than life characters portrayed. Honeck lingers perhaps too lovingly in the former's tender moments, and his treatment of the heroic main theme, as re-announced by the horns at around 10.30 and again towards the end, seems overly inflated. Otherwise, these performances convince with a life-affirming energy, vivid characterisation and brilliant playing, and I wasn't bothered by those instances (noted above) where the conductor takes liberties with the score.
In Tod und Verklarung (26.18), however, Honeck is inclined to wallow. The soul's progress towards transfiguration is marred by massive ritards. Notwithstanding the magnificence of the playing, there's too much golden syrup, robbing the music of the nobility that Klemperer, Karajan, Haitink, Tennstedt, Maazel and others bring to the score.
I listened to this CD in SACD stereo. The soundstage has a pleasing depth, and as mentioned above instrumental detail registers with great clarity.