Review by: David Hurwitz
Artistic Quality: 10
Sound Quality: 9
This is a remarkable live performance of a very difficult symphony. Manfred Honeck is a real conductor, and by that I mean he has both ideas that make musical sense and the talent to pull them off. This is evident from the very first bars of the symphony. Let’s just focus on three factors that make this interpretation so distinctive. First, he insists that his players hold notes for their full values. You may think this obvious, but it’s not. Just listen to the opening horn call: it’s not exactly legato, nor staccato, but rather sustained throughout its length, exactly as Mahler intended. And yet, you won’t hear it played this way on any other recording (try the sound clip below and listen for yourself). This insistence creates long, coherent melodic lines that project the music over the large timespans that it requires. It’s wonderful.
Next, Honeck’s control of a natural, effortless, tempo rubato is amazing. You hear it everywhere in the first movement (the announcement of the principal theme in unison horns after the start of the funeral march), and also in the finale, taken at a slow basic tempo (25-plus minutes) but encompassing infinite degrees of speed. The music lives and breathes.
Finally, Honeck pays attention to dynamics. This performance is never just “mezzo something or other”. Fortissimos rock the roof; pianissimos are truly hushed. Check out the fourth-movement “Midnight Song”, the scherzo’s rapt posthorn solos, or the sinister eruption at the center of the “Bim Bam” fifth movement. These examples offer further proof that some of the best and most audacious-sounding performances are achieved by focusing on musical fundamentals, and it is precisely these fundamentals that so many other conductors and orchestras ignore.
None of this would be possible, of course, if Honeck didn’t have a sensational orchestra at his disposal. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there is no orchestra playing today with a finer horn section than Pittsburgh’s. Not Chicago, not Vienna–nowhere. Their outbursts in the first, third, and sixth movements are hair-raising, but the pianissimo duets in the fourth movement are exquisite, and gentle as a breath. The trumpets and trombones also play magnificently in this brass-led symphony, particularly in the finale’s closing chorale, and the fact that they manage it in a live recording (even one put together from multiple performances) is astonishing. Pittsburgh also features strings with a rich, velvety, “German” sound; you hear it when they play Brahms (on PentaTone) and you get it here too. The opening of the finale is magical, a function of the correct application of a true romantic vibrato sonority (Hermann Scherchen referred to this specific passage in his book on conducting).
There are, however, two small reservations. Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, a Mahler specialist, is at home in the music but her voice is developing an unsteadiness that’s approaching a wobble. She’s not bad, but she’s certainly not the best. Also the live sonics, while warm and rich, swallow some high frequencies: triangle, glockenspiel, E-flat clarinet, piccolos–the music in some passages doesn’t quite have the glitter that Mahler’s scoring otherwise suggests. Again, this isn’t a big deal, but it does preclude the highest rating for the engineering. Never mind: anyone who cares about this music, or who wants to enjoy a telling example of great playing and conducting, must hear this.
Buy Now from Arkiv Music
Recording Details:Reference Recording: Bernstein (Sony or DG), Haitink/Concertgebouw (Philips)
GUSTAV MAHLER: Symphony No 3