• 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.

  • Masterful Wind Band Music by David Maslanka


    Maslanka: The River of Time
    John McMurtery, flute. Moises Molina, cello.
    Western Illinois University Wind Ensemble/Mike Fansler
    Navona Records 6261
    Total Time: 77:02
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    Navona introduces listeners to wind ensemble music in this new release featuring two pieces by composer David Maslanka (1943-2017).  Maslanka is most known for his extensive compositions in the wind band repertoire.  Two of his works are featured here and include his final symphony which was completed after his death by his son Matthew.

    One of Maslanka’s talents was treating the wind ensemble like one would the symphony orchestra and that included the sort of works one might hear in that context.  The first work on the program, O Earth, O Stars (2010) is one such piece being a double concerto for flute and cello.  With a playing time around 40 minutes, the piece is indeed a substantial piece.  It is cast like a cantata with Bach chorales framing the four interior movements and another at its center.  The opening “Chorale” is a rather fascinating blend of textures and sounds that gradually introduced the Bach chorale.  When the cello enters, it really lifts the music to a symphonic quality, aided by the addition of harp to the ensemble and keyboards that can add additional sounds.  These swaths of sounds, using pitched percussion and contemporary techniques of piano sounds certainly aids the ethereal feel.  Motivic development has an almost minimalist feel as we move into “You Are the Image of the Unending World” which features an impassioned long cello and flute line against punctuated woodwinds that all bubble along.  Maslanka’s music is completely captivating taking its cues from symphonic literature and masterfully exploring the colors of the wind ensemble.  Engaging and moving melodic ideas waft across the undulating accompaniments to often beautiful effects.  It is in these subtler explorations of the ensemble which seem to run counter to one often thinks about with wind band music where Maslanka’s piece here really stands out.  The gentle and subtle musical materials invite one on a calm journey that might have a touch of folkish flair (which appears in the more exciting final part of the “Sanctus” with its virtuosic demands on the flute).  A bit more dissonance appears as things move quickly in the more exciting “Dragons and Devils of the Heart” a rather dramatic and descriptive musical scherzo.  While there are other moments that stretch the music tonally, this is for the most part a highly accessible musical work.  It is also well-shaped across the six movements and moves us through a variety of fascinating meditations.

    Maslanka’s tenth symphony, The River of Time, was left mostly unfinished.  Maslanla had completed the first movement and half of the second with some sketches for the rest at the time of his death.  His son, Matthew, worked to pull this work together at the request of his father.  The piece appears to have been a sort of personal testament to his own family given the initial shape and narrative ideas David Maslanka had created.  Each of these movements has its own sort of musical working through of extreme death and loss beginning with its first movement, “Alison”, written while his wife was slowly dying of an immune disorder.  One gets a real sense of the disorientation and frustration that builds across this piece.   The central section has a Copland-esque pastoral feel with a touching melody.  The other movements were titled by Matthew.  “Mother and Boy Watching the River of Time” is another bittersweet reminiscence and is a reworking of a euphonium sonata David Malanka had written for his son.  It is a rather beautiful movement.  Using a tune marked in the sketches, Matthew Maslanka constructed the third movement, “David” with some special personal reminiscences to honor his father as well.  It adds a bit more rhythmic excitement and forward motion in a rather exhilarating flurry of sound.  The final movement, “One Breath in Peace” references Maslanka’s interest in Bach chorales, incorporating one of his favorites, “Jesu, Meine Seele”.  The resulting work is a massive essay for wind ensemble lasting some 40+ minutes creating an intriguing bookend to Maslanka’s output.  As with the earlier work, there is a real filmic sense to the narrative flow of the music with engaging thematic threads that help hold things together.  The ideas sometimes dissolve into intriguing textures and motivic development that further challenges the ensemble

    As wind ensemble literature goes, this is certainly in the significant works category challenging the focus and musicianship of any ensemble.  It is a mark of great symphonic music as well and that is certainly coming through in this recording made earlier this year at Western Illinois University.  The players respond well here and Fansler also helps guide the shape of these melodies as the float across the textures.  It is a great testament to the program he is developing there and this release is certainly something for all to be proud of indeed.