Brisk Beethoven Ninth By Honeck, Pittsburgh Goes To Spiritual Core

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Manfred Honeck conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony and Mendelssohn Choir in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at Heinz Hall (Photos courtesy of the Pittsburgh Symphony)

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; Manfred Honeck, conductor; Christina Landshamer, soprano; Jennifer Johnson Cano, mezzo-soprano; Werner Güra, tenor; Shengyang, bass-baritone; Mendelssohn Choir. Reference Recordings 741.

DIGITAL REVIEW – The celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday didn’t quite work out as planned. But the expected glut of his music, now customary for anniversary celebrations, would only have proven yet again that there can be too much of good things. Not that there weren’t important losses. In Pittsburgh the pandemic prevented Manfred Honeck’s scheduled performances of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, which would have been the Pittsburgh Symphony’s first since 1994 under Lorin Maazel.

Honeck’s riveting new CD of Beethoven’s Ninth with the Pittsburgh Symphony was recorded at Heinz Hall concerts in June 2019. He introduced his swift approach to Beethoven, drawing on the composer’s metronome markings, with stunning performances of the Seventh in 2009. The recording of the Ninth benefits from the experience the orchestra had with Honeck’s interpretation at concerts in 2010, 2013, and 2015. The result is a performance that has lost none of its radical flair but also feels well lived in.

Beethoven was always concerned about the tempos for his music when others were performing it, and for good reason. Tempo is a key performance factor in characterizing the music and the feelings it evokes. Wagner went so far as to declare that tempo is character. Take, for example, the first movement of the Ninth, marked Allegro ma non troppo e un poco maestoso. Honeck, conducting right at the metronome marking, doesn’t sound “not too much” or moderate but rather driven, almost like the first movement of the Fifth, in an idiomatically Beethovenian way. The slower performances get, the more “a bit majestic” becomes majestic and even monumental. Furtwängler’s famous recording made at the Bayreuth Festival in 1951 is much slower and gloriously majestic. But it’s more what Wagner wanted than Beethoven intended.

Beethoven was serious about his metronome markings and made sure to publish them for all his symphonies during his lifetime. When Honeck was a student in Vienna, one of his professors brought Beethoven’s metronome to class to show that it wasn’t broken, and in fact was accurate. And while those mathematically defined tempos were long ignored as impractically fast by nearly all great conductors of the past, Toscanini excepted, they have made a comeback in recent decades in the broad context of historically informed performance practices. Yet many of them remain controversial and problematic beyond some contradictions between the words at the start of the movements and metronome numbers. Even Honeck (and Toscanini) take the Funeral March of the “Eroica” much slower for the music to have the weight it deserves.

Honeck’s Scherzo bursts with rhythmic vitality, not only from its drive but also from shrewdly enlivening inner rhythms. There is no advantage to taking this music slower. The Trio is much faster than traditional. It succeeds thanks to superb nuances, such as a diminuendo on the horn solo played with personality and immaculate control by principal William Caballero, and which is also perfect preparation for the ensuing bassoon solo.

The slow movement of the Ninth is a tremendous contrast with all that preceded it, including in Honeck’s recording. Its nuances are well developed, from leaning just the right amount into an open D string of the first violins to principal clarinet Michael Rusinek’s long solo that is perfectly in tune with the emotional temperature of the interpretation. But this music can benefit greatly from a slower tempo. The slow movement can blossom only when it has the needed space, the same notes becoming more songful and deeply beautiful. The best I’ve heard is Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt’s 1965 Decca recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, which also features a fabulous finale.

Manfred Honeck, left, with colleagues after performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Although many 19th-century commentators viewed the vocal finale of the Ninth as a mistake, it is Beethoven’s setting of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” that gives this symphony its special transcendence as well as popularity beyond the classical music world. Beethoven’s lively tempo for the “Ode to Joy” theme, coupled with Honeck’s scrupulous attention to choral diction and accentuation, makes his finale a particularly exuberant experience. The Mendelssohn Choir produces a disciplined, full-bodied sound, and is fully as effective in the reflective music in the second part of the movement as in the prevailing vigorous passages elsewhere. Only the march and tenor solo with male chorus sounds too fast. The vocal quartet is excellent, particularly in the sublime joy of their meditation on “Alle Menschen werden Brüder” (All men will be brothers), right before the music accelerates for the immoderate joy of the conclusion.

The new recording features excellent sound, particularly admirable in its perspective. It has transparency and impact, but enough distance for a genuine tutti sound. It accurately captures Honeck’s balances, which do full justice to the winds in ensemble playing, including harmony. Honeck’s dynamic range is exceptionally wide.

The Honeck/Pittsburgh Symphony Beethoven Ninth is an essential recording because it is, on balance, the most persuasive representation of Beethoven’s tempo intentions. That’s more than the matter of speed. It is the skill and detailed conviction of these performers that make those tempos effective.

Mark Kanny was classical music critic of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 1999-2016, and previously wrote on classical music for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 1986-1999. His work also has appeared in The New York Times, Gramophone, Classical Voice North America, Early Music America, and other publications.