Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Bruckner's Fourth from the Pittsburgh Symphony (Honeck), and Fifth from the LPO (Skrowaczewski)

Anton Bruckner

Symphony No. 4
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Manfred Honeck
Reference Recordings FR – 713 (Hybrid CD/SACD, 5.1 and stereo)

Symphony No. 5
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Conducted by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski
LPO 0090 (CD)

Here are two very different but very worthwhile approaches to Bruckner, both captured in live performances from the in-house labels of the Pittsburgh Symphony and London Philharmonic respectively. Compared to Skrowaczewski, who was 92 in December 2015 when this recording was made, Manfred Honeck is a mere stripling, and Honeck’s Bruckner discography is a fraction the length of the legendary Skrowaczewski’s (whose complete and highly recommended Bruckner cycle with the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra was recently re-released by  Oehms records at a budget price).

Honeck’s liner notes describe the Fourth Symphony as “almost a tone poem in the robe of a symphony”. He takes Bruckner’s gushing about knights on proud horses and rustling forests quite literally and thinks that they provide a guide to interpretation. Personally I find this most implausible. Would our appreciation of this great symphony be any the less if some austere editor had removed all traces of Bruckner’s program? Surely not.

Yet, setting aside his fondness for the program, Honeck is certainly on to something when he observes that this symphony does not always lend itself to what he calls “a rigorous reading of Bruckner as a master of the organ and counterpoint”. Instead Honeck calls for flexibility of tempi and expression to bring out the full range of Bruckner’s emotional palette, which ranges from the earthiness of the scherzo to the deep melancholy of the Andanta (a melancholy that, as Honeck points out, has ironic overtones). The strengths of this recording include a great sensitivity to orchestral balance, keeping the brass on a tight leash so that they do not drown out the strings. He is particularly attentive to the violas and the richness of the orchestra comes out very well in the excellent SACD sound (I listened in 2 channel).

Honeck’s approach to the Fourth seems completely inappropriate, however, for the Fifth, which is Bruckner’s most contrapuntal and organ-inspired symphony. Despite the odd humorous moment, the Fifth has little by way of earthiness and rusticity. So it is not surprising that Skrowaczewski is almost the exact opposite of Honeck, with measured and steady tempi that characterize the “cathedral of sound” model of performance. It is difficult to fault Skrowaczewski’s grasp of the architecture of the symphony. This is not the most dramatic interpretation (listen to the end of the first movement, for example), but in both the slow movement and the Finale Skrowaczewski and the LPO achieve an extraordinary consistency of pacing and flow of the musical line. There is excellent playing from the solo oboe (Adagio) and clarinet (Finale). This is a terrific performance, as well as a fascinating testament to many decades of immersion in Bruckner’s music.  

Both discs are recommended.