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Reference Recordings Beethoven Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral’ & Stucky Silent Spring FR-747SACD Review

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Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 Pastoral

I. Awakening of cheerful feelings on arriving in the country: Allegro ma non troppo (11:01)
II. Scene by the brook: Andante molto mosso (11:49)
III. Merry assembly of country folk: Allegro (4:57)
IV. Thunderstorm: Allegro (3:28)
V. Shepherd’s Song – Benevolent feelings of thanksgiving to the deity after the storm: Allegretto (9:56)

Steven Stucky: Silent Spring

I. The Sea Around Us (3:49)
II. The Lost Woods (5:23)
III. Rivers of Death (3:09)
IV. Silent Spring (4:17)


Beethoven composed his fifth and sixth symphonies concurrently, and they were premiered in the same concert in 1808. Breaking with convention after the monumental “Eroica”, he divided Symphony No. 6 into five movements, with the last three being continuous passages nonetheless. In addition, for the first time, he authored program notes to each of the movements to direct the audience’s imagination as opposed to allowing it to roam free.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 is arguably the Maestro’s grandest, most flamboyant flight of fancy. In contrast, Symphony No. 1 and 2 ushered in the last great Classical symphonic form in the most expressive manner ever; the funeral march second movement in Symphony No. 3 redefined the symphonic genre and remains a worthy case of study for all times; the gleefulness in No. 4 in the grand scale was never again repeated by the Maestro or achieved by others in the annals of the entire classical repertoire; the monumental Fifth blasted open the collective music consciousness of the human race; the serenely lyrical Seven is so fluidic in its passages and yet its message so metaphorical and relevant even in this day that it ought to be appreciated even more deeply in our time; the Eighth, a hidden gem that is the matured and refined form of all seven that came before it; the devastatingly human Ninth with its message of universal brotherhood and a great Adagio that bears the final seal of Beethoven; but the Sixth is the one and only Beethovenian-equivalent of the modern day motion picture soundtrack. When one hears the gathering at the countryside, the celebration, the thunderstorm and the calm after, is one also not able to see the procession through the eyes of Beethoven the person? Is he not relishing in the celebration, raising his fists at the suppressing storm and then finally rising anew from the struggle?

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Music Director Manfred Honeck has demonstrated a consistently brisk tempo to his reading of the Beethoven Ninth and Bruckner Ninth, which is just fine as Beethoven demanded briskness for this piece, and suddenly it looks like status quo for Honeck and team. The “Pastoral” is enshrined with Beethoven’s dictate of what the music is to convey, and he undoubtedly instilled his fiery persona into the undercurrent of the procession. Now, if this were any other composition, I’d be compelled to say MD Honeck will not have the easiest time with his customary briskness in rendering the “Pastoral,” and he will have to channel his inherent energy discreetly and commit the music to posterity when his energy level is at its most tranquil and optimum, not at the highest. But just like with everything else, briskness is relative.

Bruno Walter recorded the Sixth with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra in 1958 with a forty-minutes running time. Carlos Kleiber conducted the piece live for Orfeo in 1983 for thirty-five minutes and a half. Herbert von Karajan recorded the Sixth for his third and final Beethoven cycle in 1983 and that recording clocked in even quicker at a little over thirty-four minutes.

Honeck and the Pittsburgh SO went at it for forty-one minutes, the longest on my list. What gives?

From Honeck’s Beethoven Ninth and Bruckner Ninth, one can see the how he is whipping the ensemble into shape by sheer practice, driving the players to attain precision and unison  great speeds, unlike the Europeans who follow a strict course of academia and artistry. Honeck’s regimen has seemed to pay off as the PSO now traverses complex passages with considerable mastery. The downside is missed serenity, sometimes even a frantic quality as expressed in the Adagio of the Beethoven Ninth. So, when Referencing Recordings notified me of its release of a Beethoven Symphony No. 6 recording, and one conducted by Manfred Honeck and performed by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra no less, I thought that briskness is what Honeck and PSO do and this ought to be easy, relatively speaking.

By now, it is obvious that Music Director Honeck and the Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra are on a quest to record the complete Beethoven Symphonies Cycle. I haven’t had the opportunity to hear the ensemble’s Beethoven Fifth so no comment on that, but its Ninth was quite an experience and my expectation of the Honeck Beethoven Sixth is surprisingly not to be. In fact, this is the most nuanced and, at times, most individualized performance of the Sixth I’ve heard. Honeck and team slammed on the brakes; again relative speaking. He highlights the woodwinds in the “By the Brook” Second Movement like no conductors before him, but the reference caliber sound turned it into an advantage and showered the listener with a most transparent and faithful rendition of the instruments.

So, this is what a relaxed Honeck and PSO sound like and we get to survey the complexity of the sound and performance unhurried. I don’t mind at all it being the slowest on records when the movement sounds this engaging, and this is the recording that distinguishes the first two movements more dramatically from each other than those released by the other aforementioned recordings. The effectiveness of creative license being applied by Honeck in this instance is undisputed, although the extent of his adherence to the original intent is debatable, but so was Carlos Kleiber in his swashbuckling and highly acclaimed live recording of the Fourth.

As soon as the “Merry Assembly” Third Movement gets underway, anyone can tell it’s the moment for PSO to show its stuff. The sweeping and charging strings created such momentum that the tremendous effects ushered all players into oneness with the whole. There is such unison it is, again, a beautiful sound and none too long. By the way, watch out for that horn at 0:26 on the right when the storm hits.

This work brought the individual elements of the PSO together and molded it into a magnificent body. The recording represents the dawn of a higher level of being for the ensemble from which a new sound emerges, one that extols strength and unity. With this attainment, this recording seemingly puts a deserving mark in the current Honeck-PSO/Beethoven cycle as we await its completion patiently. I can see the wisdom of the exercise demonstrated in the consecutive release of the recordings, and I shall be looking forward to the next cycle in which the Sixth and the Ninth are continuingly refined.

With the expertise of the recording engineers of Sound Mirror and Reference Recordings at his disposal, Music Director Honeck’s music making is already more than halfway through to the hearts of music lovers. All he and PSO have to do is focus on making music for posterity, and that means readings most central and faithful to the original intents of the composer, while interjecting just enough flair and creative license to make the music engaging and vital. Karajan was only able to achieve this very goal by committing the music to cycles of performance and recording, thereby channeling a focus on a core repertoire that will refine the music making efforts continuingly.

Too many times an audiophile label releases a superbly recorded work of uninspired playing. Major classical labels employ music scholars and professionals to uncover worthy artists to sign on for recordings, but independently owned audiophile labels often lack the means to go the extra mile in securing stellar artists. It is for this very fact that we ought to consider ourselves extremely fortunate to have the convergence of three crucial elements at the right time and place, namely a label such as Reference Recordings, releasing a performance of the PSO, as recorded expertly by Sound Mirror, that gives rise to this fine music production.

The other work in this release is the Steven Stucky Silent Spring symphony. It is a short piece of four movements no less, running just under seventeen minutes in total and quite dramatic. It is a musical representation of the 1962 Rachel Carson novel of the same name. This is the pioneering novel that championed awareness of the environmental and health impacts of the use of pesticides. Naturally, its messages are of a bleak and foreboding nature. However, not disregarding the work’s musical intent, my predominant impression is that I like its stunning sonority and melodic nature, and am thankful it doesn’t carry the Neo-Classicism emphasis of rational arrangement of sounds and notes.

In fact, Silent Spring carries a forward momentum so dynamically fluid, musically wholesome and emotionally rich, it might as well have been used in a Steven Spielberg movie. There are moments that conjure up images from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. With Sound Mirror’s reference caliber recording and passionate playing by the PSO, every moment in the course of Silent Spring is ear-opening. It is a system demonstrator through and through.

All in all, this recent release represents a high point in the annals of the classical music industry.

The release is available in SACD and various audio files for downloading, including a 24-bit 192 KHz edition. The SACD is superior where the Esoteric K-01XD is concerned, although the high-resolution audio file doesn’t give up much. In numbers, a 24/192 file already exceeds the resolution of SACD; in practice, having the K-01XD read the disc contributes to a more realistic presentation via sharper textural focus.

Reference Recordings:

At time of press, Reference Recordings informed me that DSD downloads are also available: Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 & Stucky: Silent Spring – NativeDSD Music



Copy editor: Dan Rubin

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