Brahms • MacMillan
Brahms: Symphony No. 4; James MacMillan: Larghetto for Orchestra
Pittsburgh Symphony/Manfred Honeck
Reference Recordings FR-744 (CD/SACD) 53:20 mins
In this outstanding performance of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, Manfred Honeck draws a wonderfully rich, almost Central European string sound from the Pittsburgh Symphony, matched by equally mellifluous and wonderfully blended colours from the woodwind and horns. Only the rather sharp-etched tone of the trumpets betrays the fact that we are in fact listening to an American orchestra. But there’s a thrilling immediacy to their playing which seems absolutely appropriate to the triumphant fanfares in the opening Allegro non troppo, or to the unbounded joviality of the third movement Allegro giocoso.
As in his previous recordings for Reference, Honeck provides an extremely detailed and insightful booklet note explaining his interpretative approach, focusing on matters of articulation, instrumental balance and tempo fluctuation. I was particularly convinced by the way he begins the Symphony with a slightly elongated note, like a deep-breathed sigh – a gesture which really enables the first melodic idea to unfold with a feeling of inevitability.
There are many other passages in this performance that make you sit up and experience the music anew, none more so than the opening of the Passacaglia Finale where Honeck inserts a startling crescendo in the fifth bar, thereby ratcheting up the levels of emotional intensity. From that moment on, the performance seems to take on an even greater urgency than before and the orchestra rise to the occasion with brilliantly characterised playing.
The serenity and beauty of James MacMillan’s Larghetto, a remarkably effective orchestral transcription of his earlier Miserere for unaccompanied chorus, provides necessary balm after the turbo-charged dynamism of this Brahms 4.