• A Delightful Double Concerto with an Articulate Tchaikovsky Reading

    Tchaikovky: Symphony No. 4/Leshnoff: Double Concerto
    Michael Rusinek, clarinet.  Nancy Goeres, bassoon.
    Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck
    Reference FR-738
    Total Time:  63:12
    Recording:   (*)***/****
    Performance: ****/****


    Manfred Honeck pairs a world premiere modern concerto with one of the great classical war horses on this new “Fresh!” live release from Reference Recordings.  As the orchestra’s music director over the past decade, Honeck has continued to raise the orchestra’s profile with often invigorating explorations of classic literature and expansions to the groups repertoire.  Their series of highly-acclaimed releases continues here in amazing Super 5.0 Stereo realization.  The Tchaikovsky was actually recorded in 2016 and is the last of the three later symphonies to appear in the orchestra’s recent releases.

    Tchaikovsky’s later symphonies are among his most-performed and popular works.  The fourth (composed over 1877-1878) in particular holds fascination for its motivic development and intensity that seem to expand upon Beethoven’s own exploration of fate and destiny.  This is the third of the symphonies to make it to disc with Honeck and the PSO.  A quick glance at the overall timings for each of the movements suggests a rather traditional performance with just a slight more time taken in parts of the second movement.  What is most striking about the performance, and which is apparent from the opening bars, is the extreme care that is being taken to the shaping of themes.  One can hear parallel articulations across the sections of the orchestra.  Honeck also makes a lot more out of the sudden shifts in dynamics which can make those moments doubly exciting.  The wind playing throughout the symphony is quite exquisite as a result and that sinuous oboe melody in the second movement moves forward without too much pathos.  This allows some of the yearning to grow more as the movement proceeds.  Brass also are on great display here, especially in the powerful opening and conclusion.  The strings do well, but seem a bit lower in the sound picture, sometimes being overwhelmed by other parts of the orchestra.  This is particularly the case in the opening movement.  The second movement also seems to have some sense of balance adjustment that is not distracting (and might be a result of the 5.0 imaging).  Throughout the bass end seems particularly boom-y at times.  The scherzo really lets the strings shine with the pizzicato playfulness casting itself nicely in the outer sections and a light, trio section.  The finale brings us back to those large monolithic brass blocks of sound and crisp, shots that balance against the lyrical contrasts.  There is solid, controlled energy to get us to the exciting conclusion and Honeck lets the music play for itself without adding any additional, artificial urgency.  This makes the final minutes quite satisfying.  (There is just a brief moment, where it feels like the orchestra was getting a bit over-excited and Honeck manage to pull them back).  That makes those final moments really exciting.  Personal favorites of this symphony include Montreux’s classic Boston set, and Gergiev’s Vienna series (also a live recording).  The latter has a bit more passion (though arguably the bassoon solo in Honeck’s recording in the second movement could not be more emotionally plaintive).  Honeck’s is not a “careful” rendition, but a rather deeply thought out interpretation that draws out Tchaikovsky’s emotional core and creates a consistent performance approach across the orchestra.  In that respect, it is certainly a wonderful performance that is worth exploration and the solo work throughout is really worth the price of admission here.

    The album is paired with a new work by Jonathan Leshnoff (b. 1973) commissioned by the orchestra and premiered in June 2019 (when the recording was made).  A collection of his orchestral music appeared last year on the Naxos label exploring his lyrical orchestral music with its always engaging thematic ideas.  Leshnoff’s music is a link to the great Neo-Romanticists of the 20th Century (Creston, Diamond, Harris).  In this new work, he pairs clarinet with bassoon for a rather fascinating exploration of the double concerto genre.  The work is cast in three movements.  The first movement begins with long, descending string lines that shift into the bassoon’s upper, songful register.  The clarinet then enters to twine itself around this idea with some stunningly beautiful, romantic harmonic backgrounds.  A brief off-kilter waltz follows with a delightful lower bassoon staccato line to open and a nice lyrical clarinet commentary to provide a contrast.  It features a delightful section for solo bassoon accompanied with the orchestra’s bassoons as well.  The final movement brings us a more energetic dash that brings the soloists into more dialogue with the larger orchestra in a more traditional fashion, kicked off with a brass chord before the perpetual motion lets the soloists display their technique.  Leshnoff’s music is always quite engaging and the interaction between the soloists here helps create a lot of delightful interplay.  The accessible harmonic style also invites the listener in with its almost cinematic qualities.  Bassoonist Nancy Goeres and clarinetist Michael Rusinek are quite superb interpreters of the work.  They seem more forward in the sound picture and imaged on either side to create a somewhat realistic spatial feel though sometimes they get shifted more to the center.

    This is an overall an excellent release.  Really, one should pick this up for Leshnoff’s delightful concerto.  The Tchaikovsky is obviously what will grab the attention of the casual listener at first, but what a great way to introduce a new work to a broader audience.  Of course, it is second on the album so it might not get that first listen it might otherwise have.  It is also rather odd that neither soloist is listed anywhere on the cover or really anywhere.  One sort of discovers by leafing through the booklet who they are and there is a little Q and A section there.  Notes for the Tchaikovsky are fine and a nice overview of this more familiar work.  Whether one is attracted to this release for either repertoire, there will be much to enjoy in both cases.

  • Maskuniitty Makes Solo Debut


    Music for Horn and Orchestra
    Markus Maskuniitty, horn.
    Martin Schopfer, Kristofer Oberg, Monica Berenguer Caro, horns.
    Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
    Ondine 1339-2
    Total Time:  59:08
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    The French Horn began its life outdoors and when it finally made it into the orchestra its range was fairly limited.  Through most of the 18th Century it was used to punctuate cadences.  Mozart explored the instruments capabilities in his horn concertos and by the time Beethoven began writing orchestral music, performers were beginning to also explore greater capabilities of the instrument.  Thus began its movement from a symbol of the outdoors and the hunt to one of romantic longing adding a unique color that would be explored fully throughout the 19th Century.  In his debut recording for Ondine, Markus Maskuniitty has chosen four works from across a century of music for the instrument.  Maskuniitty has been principal horn for the Berlin Philharmonic and is principal horn for the orchestra that accompanies him here.  Sakari Oramo is their principal conductor and this continues to expand his quite diverse recorded repertoire.

    Schumann often thought of the horn as the “soul of the orchestra”.  His most memorable use of them may be in his Rhenish symphony.  The addition of valves to the horn (patented in 1818) added to its expressive capabilities and Schumann was the first composer to compose a work that would explore this in his Konzerstuck for 4 Horns, Op. 86 (1849).  It is a fine concertante work cast in three connected movements that highlights some of the primary moods of the instrument: heroism, romance, and majesty.  The performance here pays close attention to the accents and captures the styles of the period very well with superb support from the orchestra.  Balance is also carefully nuanced.  The music still has that distant echo of Beethoven which is brought out by the precision of articulation and delineated forms.  The central movement begins to really bring us more lyricism and romantic sensibility.  Most impressive are the ways the four soloists match their sound as lines are handed off from one to the next.  There is also a real sense of love for the music which further helps lift it to a more engaging performance.  Schumann wrote two additional works for the new valve horn.  Of these, his Adagio and Allegro, Op. 70 (1849) has become a significant repertoire piece for the instrument.  In the late 1950s, the great Swiss conductor arranged the work for orchestra and subsequently recorded it.  That arrangement is revisited here in a stunningly gorgeous performance.  In fact, the Schumann performances here make one want to hear Oramo’s take on his symphonies as well.

    The Morceau de concert, Op. 94 (1887) was written at the height of Saint-Saens popularity.  He would also composer three works for the instrument.  This one was dedicated to the horn builder Henru Chaussier (creator of his own Cor Chaussier).  Cast in three movements, one gets a real sense of Saint-Saens assured hand in orchestration that really comes out in the central slow movement.  The piece is in the grand romantic tradition.  Interesting aspects of the work include the way tone and notes are shaped by hand in bell placement.  This comes out well here, though the modern instrument likely allows for a smoother tone.  These subtleties though can still be heard in Maskuniitty’s performance.

    Reinhold Gliere (1875-1956) is mostly known today for his ballet The Red Poppy.  His output includes a number of symphonic poems and three rather remarkable symphonies but his music was a bit overshadowed by the political turmoil of the Russian Revolution.  Unlike others who fled, Gliere remained in Russia carving out a life as an educator and continuing to composer works often approved by the state.  Later in his life, he began composing a number of concertos for various instruments.  The most famous of these, and his last completed orchestral work, is the Horn Concerto in Bb, Op. 91 (1951).  Written for Valery Polekh (1918-2006) the hornist with the Bolshoi Orchestra, Gliere’s work was modeled on Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and in many respects is a last glimpse of an era of romanticism and folkish influences that were part of the 19th-Century Russian classical tradition.  For many this will be a wonderful discovery of an engaging concerto with colorful orchestral writing.  Unlike the earlier pieces on the album, the miking here is close enough to pick up some of Maskuniitty’s breathing, especially in the cadenza—which features some awesome low register playing.

    Sometimes in recordings of works for soloist with orchestra the latter sort of takes a back seat often just reading through the music with a distant professionalism.  In this recording, it really feels like conductor and orchestra are working as hard as the soloist to bring us performances of great detail and shape that match Maskuniitty’s virtuoso performances here.  There is also a sense of joy in this whole interaction that often leads to some exhilarating music making.  It is even more impressive that this consistency exists for these recordings made between 2016 and 2018.  For those who love 19th Century music and are expanding their own listening repertoire, this album should bring a lot of pleasure and bear up under repeated listening.