STRAUSS: Don Juan, Op. 20. Death and Transfiguration,
Op. 24. Till
Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, Op. 28.
MUSSORGSKY-BREINER: Pictures at an Exhibition. Songs and
Dances of Death. The Nursery.
BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 9 in D minor
Distinguished Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck has revitalized the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra since he was appointed music director in 2008.— his contact has been extended to 2020. He already has made a number of recordings for the pricey Exton label; now we have this Strauss SACD of three early symphonic poems recorded June 8 - 10, 2012 in Pittsburg's Heinz Hall. The engineering team is not the same as for previous Reference Recordings; this was produced by Dirk Sbotka, balance engineer was Mark Donahue and recording engineers were Ray Clover and John Newton. They did their work well — this is a big, rich orchestral sound with admirable definition, and rear speakers provide a pleasant reflective ambience. And the performances are superb, a lively and spirited Don Juan and Till, and a powerful, brooding Death and Transfiguration. Honeck does not rush the latter, and the blazing climax is heaven-storming with its powerful brass. Playing time for this is 26:18, long of the longest ever recorded, but it works. I look forward to further RR issued of this mighty orchestra and its dynamic conductor.
Naxos doubtless expected this Mussorgsky-Breiner disk to be a sonic blockbuster, but ,for various reasons it disappoints. This site recently reviewed the regular CD issue (REVIEW). Again, as a transcription it is overdone and not very imaginative. Breiner piles on percussive effects and harp glissandi that just seem tacked on, and his lethargic conducting makes all of it plodding indeed. This is the slowest promenade I've experienced. I had hoped the Blu Ray 5.1 surround sound version might improve things sonically and it does to some extent. Audio is superior to the regular CD, but the engineers do little with 5.1 channels to work with. Only limited ambient sound is heard from rear speakers; how much more imaginative it would have been if the listener found himself (or herself) right in the center of the large orchestra, surrounded by instruments, but that opportunity, unfortunately, was missed.
Bernard Haitink, now 85, always had a close association with music of Bruckner, recording all of the symphonies with the Concertgebouw relatively early in his career. Over the years, he has rerecorded most of them again; there are 3 of Symphony No. 7 (two with the Concertgebouw, one with the Chicago Symphony), and 4 of Symphony No. 8 (two with the Concertgebouw, one with the Dresden State Orchestra, one with the Vienna Philharmonic). This site mentioned his LSO live recording of Symphony No. 4, which was negated by unresonant sound (REVIEW). This superb performance of Symphony No. 9 was from concerts Feb. 17 and 21, 2013 also at the Barbican, and this time engineers have provided a more appropriate Brucknerian sound picture, although brass could use a bit more edge. Haitink made two recordings of this symphony with the Concertgebouw; this new live LSO performance is considerably longer than before (67:10) mostly because of a more expansive first movement. Incidentally, Eduard van Beinum, Haitink's predecessor at the Concerto and another Bruckner specialist, played the first movement much quicker: 22:26 compared with Haitink's 27:21. At any rate, this new issue seems to be rather unnecessary except for Haitink's most avid admirers, particularly when Decca is about to issue, to commemorate Haitink's 85th birthday, a super-budget issue of 36 CDs containing his recordings of all of the symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler—an incredible bargain (Decca 002100702).
R.E.B. (February 2014)