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Spiritual Brucknerian Heights with Honneck

Bruckner/Bates Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck Reference FR-757 Total Time:  77:45 Recording:   ****/**** Performance: ****/****



Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony continue their exploration of Bruckner’s symphonies with this new recording of the seventh symphony (1883 Nowak Edition).  The piece is coupled with a new work by Mason Bates, Resurrexit (2018).  The performances were recorded live in March of 2022.  There are some who already have their go-to performances of this work.  Eugene Jochum’s Dresden Staatskapelle set, and some of the last recordings made by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski are personal favorites.  The latter especially because of his very personal approach to the music.  This allows for a sort of living document for this music that creates a more satisfying musical experience and many will find that this new release with Honeck and the PSO are going to achieve that very well in far superior sound.  The tempos tend to be a bit more malleable in this interpretation and some may find the slightly slower moments in the opening movement and scherzo a make or break choice, but they make sense in terms of the larger conception of this performance.

Bruckner’s seventh symphony was begun shortly after completion of his 6th, in the fall of 1881.  The piece is the beginning of the shift to deeper, more spiritual aspects coming to the foreground of the music.  There is still that long, expressive lyricism that continues here to reach ever upward.  The piece is cast in a traditional four movement pattern.  The first movement is filled with breathtaking melodic ideas that have some achingly-beautiful harmonic shifts that continue to expand upon the Wagnerian approaches, though here these are seemingly more a part of the integral composer’s style. The first movement begins with this gorgeous arching theme in violas and cellos) and it seems to come from nowhere into a glorious statement before fading away for a more melancholy idea in oboes and clarinets.  And, of course, those syncopated brass ideas must signal that this section is coming to a close.  A third theme, feeling a bit more rustic, provides some additional contrast before we are returned to the primary idea.  The third thematic area features a bit more brass cadentially, a common technique of the composer.  In the final bars of this work, it has been suggested that Bruckner may have had Das Rheingold in mind with his use of a long crescendo over a single chord, though the effect is quite different.  Honneck views this music with a nod to Bruckner’s exploration of Catholicism and religiosity and that tends to create a sense of intense devotion in the way the ideas are phrased and shaped.  The brass too may suddenly appear to add a bit of punch, but this is a warmer emphatic approach here. 

Wagner is very much on the mind of the composer though in the second movement.  The slow “Adagio” is a bit of tribute to Wagner in a couple of aspects.  (It is important to note that it was during this time that Wagner did indeed die and this also lends the work an interesting historical side note for its possible emotional connections.)  The connection is made from the start in a noble opening theme assigned to a quartet of “Wagner tubas”.  There is even a bit of a hint of Tristan und Isolde later in the movement right before the second theme appears.  The inclusion of cymbals, triangle and timpani for the movement’s climax (something not in the original score but suggested by Bruckner’s friends and often emended) is also included here.  The midpoint of this movement is heartbreakingly beautiful that may bring listeners to weep at the music.  The finale is a fabulous ascension of sorts perhaps depicting musically one’s transcendence into the light and the peace that follows.  These two massive movements make up more than half the playing time of the work.

Austrian landler often inform Bruckner’s scherzos, an approach that Mahler would continue.  The third movement’s ABA form features this dance-like musical style, a connection to the first movement’s third theme perhaps, with a rather driving momentum moving to a central section with a more songful atmosphere.  The piece has a little bit of restraint in its tempo, creating a more measured approach to the proceedings.  The fourth movement finale is a balance of three themes like the first, but at about half the length—an unusual move for the composer in its lightness.  A dotted rhythm is an important element of the first theme, a sort of reminiscence of folk roots.  This gives way to a more serene chorale idea in violins and violas against a pizzicato bass line—quite entrancing in its own way.  The third idea is a more angular version of the first theme but the big reveal is that the opening theme of this movement is really a variation taken from the opening of the first movement.  This brings the whole symphony full circle, one might even say it is almost a description of life itself.

I had the opportunity to hear, Honeck’s earlier recording of the Bruckner 9th, which was equally a fascinating read.  As an experienced performer with with the Vienna Philharmonic and Vienna State Opera Orchestra, and as an assistant to Claudio Abbado, he brings a unique understanding to this music.  The ample notes for this release provide some of the most detailed information about his approach to the music.  They are complete with actual timing information for the respective track which can allow the listener to thus hear what is being discussed as it happens.  That is a crucial component for a work that can seem rather elusive.  The beautiful string writing here especially comes across well from the PSO.  Balance is also accomplished very well in the sound picture here with a rich ensemble style.  An attention to detail in articulation across the orchestra is also laudable here as the different blocks of sound and specific choirs of sound (the “organ stops” if you will) are matched quite well here.  The result is a deeply moving performance.  And, if one has a surround stereo to enjoy them, it is a quite overwhelming musical experience that reaches the transcendency that the music aims to achieve.

The Bruckner alone would be sufficient for most releases, but also included is a new work by Mason Bates commissioned by the PSO for Honeck’s 60th birthday.  Resurrexit (2018) is a piece that further illuminates the spiritual musical style that the conductor brings to his performances.  Bates’ work here incorporates an Easter chant blending a sense of Biblical mystery with references to Byzantine music as well as exploring exotic styles of the Middle East as well. There is a bit of modern Hollywood romanticism in some of the writing here.  There is an interesting slow build that grows into a frenzy of movement that allows for some tossing about of motives just past the midpoint.  The accessibility of the piece is a bonus here and the way that Bates provides interesting colorful ideas across the orchestra provides a nice challenge as it builds into its final moments.  It feels like it would make for a rather brilliant opening concert piece.  The music inhabits the sort of popular orchestral styles of Daugherty and Torke, with flashes of John Adams. 

This is a quite fabulous release in excellent sound with committed performances of both works.  The Bruckner performance provides a great reading and interpretation to the work that should bear up well to repeated listening and the accompanying notes can enhance the understanding of the work.  The Bates is a brilliant orchestral showpiece that makes for an exciting conclusion to the program overall.  A highly recommendable release from Reference and a Bruckner cycle that continues to impress.


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