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Getting Stucky and a Not Very Passive Pastorale

Beethoven: Symphony No. 6/Stucky: Silent Spring Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck Reference FR-744 Total Time: 58:02 Recording: ****/**** Performance: ****/****

Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony have been slowly working their way through a Beethoven symphony cycle. Honeck has some interesting performance ideas that have made some of these a little odd for some even if the PSO’s performances themselves have been expectedly flawless. His working method and approach are provided in a superlatively-detailed program note to guide the listener through this. Beethoven’s programmatic experiment is paired with a modern piece by Steven Stucky which increases the attractiveness of the package as well as bringing the latter’s music to a potentially wider audience. The performances are taken from concerts in 2017 (Beethoven) and 2018 (Stucky).

Not too much time passes before one can already hear some of the changes Honeck is trying here not the least of which is doubling a flute line with piccolo in the first movement. That is perhaps the most noticeable color shift. There are some others as well. Interpretively there are also some tempo fluctuations that, coupled with some occasionally odd dynamic shifts, will take some getting used to for those intimately familiar with the piece. This “tampering” will continue through the performance and is going to make or break most listeners decision whether they can come along with Honeck for this experiment. In many respects, what he has done is make adjustments that feel informed by the evolution of the orchestral instruments and abilities in a modern setting. What is perhaps interesting is that this can be a risky choice, but the result is that the listener is not lulled into another bland retread of a war horse. Instead, Honeck’s choices give the music a new life that is transferred across each section of the orchestra which responds with some quite gorgeous playing. The balance throughout of the ensemble also helps bring out some of the wind lines well. The “Scene by the brook” brings those wind solos very forward in the sound picture. Another distinguishing aspect of the performance is that it feels like we are walking through these scenes with the experiences we encounter shifting through time. That keeps things moving very well and each repeated phrase or musical line has a more unique quality that feels changed by what has come before. The country folk do dance admirably in the rustic third movement and the thunderstorm bursts force with frightening energy before all the celebration of the finale brings us to a close.

Honeck’s performance of Beethoven’s Pastoral is the most distinctive and unique of modern traversals of this work. That says a couple of things. One, that Beethoven’s real genius and innovation has been subsumed into a familiar performance style that is not quite as shocking as it was in the day. Second, we have come to just accept this as music that we gently nod to without really listening to the genius of this music. Of course, one might argue that when a conductor so fitfully tinkers with a piece that we are not getting as faithful an interpretation, but then we must decide to we want to just hear a historical recreation, or something that transcends that into the present day. Honeck seems to hope for the latter and his choices, as laid out in the accompanying notes, are solid decisions by someone who knows this music intimately and wants to make it communicate to today’s more jaded audiences. We do not get just another reading, well-performed and executed, we get an interpretation that is unique. It seems to come from a time when one really needed to hear a variety of different conductors and orchestras play this literature because each brought something new to the table. That has somewhat been lost over the last half of the 20th Century, but here we get to experience this all over anew.

Silent Spring (2011) was a commission to commemorate the publication of Rachael Carlson’s significant work. It was premiered on February 12, 2012. Steven Stucky (1949-2016) was a well-respected and widely-performed composer and held residencies with a number of orchestras including Pittsburgh. The piece is a sort of modern symphony with descriptive titles for each of its four movements. Out of a dark blur of sound, the music bubbles up to the surface with undulating lines that are accompanied by these some what crashing waves in the opening movement (“The Sea Around Us”). The skittering wind lines move us into some fascinating colors as it morphs into “The Lost Woods”. Stucky uses a chaconne form to explore these somber, dark chord progressions before leaping into a scherzo (“Rivers of Death”). “Silent Spring” closes the work as voices fall silent inviting contemplation as to what has been done to the natural world. Stucky’s music is quite accessible and this is an engaging dramatic work with lots of fine orchestral color.

By now, most listeners will know if Honeck’s Beethoven cycle is for them, though this performance is certainly one that makes for a worthy experience. The leap to the programmatic symphonies of Berlioz can be heard in this grandparent work. Stucky’s piece makes for the perfect companion moving us from the joys of the countryside to a reflection at what damage has been done. These are committed performances that make for an engaging listen. The larger fortes can feel a bit overwhelming in a regular system but when played on a surround system really help the orchestra shine even more. Worth checking out for the Stucky and an intriguing take on a familiar classic.


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