Theeeyyyyrrre Back! After some strangely wayward recordings of Beethoven’s Ninth and Tchaikovsky Fourth, Manfred Honeck is back on form in this new release of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, demonstrating once again that it’s still possible to turn in characterful, personal interpretations of standard repertoire without the need to flirt with perversity. After a first movement outstanding for its exquisitely gentle (but still fluent) opening and an aptly ferocious coda, the remainder of the symphony is noteworthy for its unusual fleetness–no “autumnal” Brahms here! This approach pays big dividends in the ballad-like second movement, whose singing, legato melodies could have started to sag at a slower speed.
The third movement, too, has more of a “scherzando” character than it usually does, with the triangle blended into the texture rather than given concerto-style prominence. As a result, the finale has both urgency as well as the necessary weight. The famous flute solo at its center is played magnificently by Principal Flute Lorna McGhee, offering a quiet moment of pathos before Honeck drives the symphony to an excitingly grim conclusion. Through it all, the Pittsburgh Symphony plays the music as beautifully as it can be done. It’s worth noting that this same orchestra, under Marek Janowski, recorded a first-rate Brahms cycle of very different character not too long ago for PentaTone: more “classical,” far less self-consciously sculpted, but I wouldn’t part with either.
James MacMillan’s Larghetto for Orchestra is a Pittsburgh commission, an orchestral reworking of a choral setting of the Miserere text. As the title suggests, it’s a rather grave, prayerful piece, whose obvious vocal origins take the form of solemn chorales alternating with repeated-note melodies evocative of chant. It’s easy on the ear, but not especially memorable. Still, it works well as a “serious” coupling to a very serious symphony, and perhaps it will grow on me (and you). Superb engineering makes this new release especially welcome. A winner all around.