Brahms: Symphony No. 4; James MacMillan: Larghetto for Orchestra. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; Manfred Honeck, conductor. Reference Recordings 744
DIGITAL REVIEW — There was extra exhilaration in Pittsburgh at the start of the 2021-22 subscription season, in addition to the burst of energy and relief at the resumption of concert life felt everywhere: Music director Manfred Honeck had agreed to a new six-year contract that will extend his tenure to 2027-28. Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra are one of the world’s outstanding artistic collaborations, a partnership non-locals have been to able share through an extensive series of CDs. Now Reference Recordings has released a new CD of Honeck and the orchestra, their 18th together — six on the Exton label and a dozen on Reference Recordings. The new CD features their first recordings of music by Brahms and James MacMillan, the latter a masterpiece commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony.
Honeck begins Brahms’ Fourth Symphony by lingering on the upbeat, emphasizing the way the first two notes can sound like a sigh. Those two notes are immediately inverted, so goodbye temporarily to the sigh, but Honeck’s rhetorical gesture establishes a certain wistfulness characteristic of Brahms’ first two movements. It also signals the expressive range the conductor achieves throughout the first movement for songfulness, motivic interplay, mystery, and power.
The Andante moderato also brings a bit of a surprise at its start because the conductor begins slightly less slowly than expected and with unusual smoothness for the horn fanfare. The ensuing soft long line for clarinets and bassoons is perfectly balanced with the horn idea played by pizzicato strings. In fact, this beautiful performance is marked by transparent textures of rich tones as well as wonderful nuances in the strings and particularly powerful climaxes.
The tempo for the second movement is a reminder that Brahms thought of Andantes the way Classical-era composers did, rather than a “slow movement” as so many of his contemporaries saw it. However, Brahms presents dilemmas for anyone considering a historically informed performance approach. He didn’t believe in the metronome and left no metronome markings for his symphonies. There aren’t even timings for the world premiere of the Fourth Symphony he conducted with the Meiningen Court Orchestra or for any of the subsequent tour performances he led. Wouldn’t that be interesting to know? A fascinating article on “Tempos and Proportions in Brahms” by Bernard D. Sherman in Early Music (August 1997) scours the historical evidence, even including the metronome markings the composer was persuaded by friends to prepare for a few works, such as A German Requiem, before withdrawing them. Sherman’s article concludes, crucially, with a quotation ascribed to Brahms when discussing interpretation with a performer: “Do it how you like, but make it beautiful.”
The Allegro giocoso is unique among the third movements of Brahms symphonies for its vigor, which Honeck emphasizes with his driving tempo. And for all its boldness, this performance is also sensitive. The slight pauses before selected loud tutti chords are exceptionally tasteful. The perfectly judged presence of piccolo and triangle, also unique in Brahms symphonies, exemplifies the careful attention to sonorities.
All the strengths of the preceding movements culminate in the finale, which is both dynamic and exquisitely nuanced. The flute solo is a special highlight. Honeck slows going into the flute variation, bypassing Brahms’ direction to maintain the underlying pulse. But the reward is the remarkable beauty created by principal flutist Lorna McGhee, which in expressive shaping and coloristic imagination is stunning. (Incidentally, McGhee was also an impressive soloist earlier this month in Kaija Saariaho’s flute concerto, Aile du Songe [Wing of the Dream] with guest conductor Osmo Vänskä.)
The new recording is completed by a major new work, no mere filler. MacMillan’s Larghetto for Orchestra was one of three premieres commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony for Honeck’s 10th season as music director. It was recorded at its premiere performances in Oct. 2017 at Heinz Hall. Larghetto is a reworking for full orchestra of MacMillan’s a capella Miserere, composed in 2009 on commission from The Sixteen, the superb London-based choral ensemble. The Sixteen’s recording of Miserere can be heard online on YouTube.
MacMillan’s music is imbued with profound religious sensibility. The orchestral version loses none of the penitential character. The music is in E minor until the very end, the same key as the Brahms symphony. It opens for cellos divided in four parts, marked “desolate and void,” and becomes more fervent in its prayer. The pleading includes passages marked “keening, crying.” The contrasting sections feature soft wind solos (for horn, trumpet, trombone, and English horn) performed in irregular “speech rhythms, like a chant.” The concluding section shifts to E major and offers some hope without losing any of its deep humility. MacMillan’s orchestration is masterly in harmonic emphasis and subtly drawn colors, such as a slight crescendo for soft suspended cymbal in the last measure.
Honeck, like MacMillan, is a devout Catholic and leads a committed performance with superbly controlled orchestral playing. The fortissimo passages are very well judged in volume and come forth naturally.
Finally, the quality of recorded sound on the new Reference CD is a spectacular achievement because it is so utterly natural, as though you’re hearing the music from the best seat in the house.