UPDATE 8/25/09 -- Last one, I promise. I forgot to put my review of the new PSO disc here. It ran in the Post-Gazette and on www.post-gazette.com last week. I will put it below the update below. Actually, I meant for my review to run with 3 stars, but it accidently went with 4. I am not going to be a jerk and run a correction on that, but I will change the online story ...
UPDATE 8/18/09: I added yet another review below, this time a review of the new Pittsburgh Symphony disc on Pentatone with Janowski. I don't have the disc yet (it was released in Europe first), but when I do I will review it, too.
Records are rated on a scale of one (awful) to four (classic) stars:
Strauss, 'Alpine Symphony' and 'Macbeth' Pittsburgh Symphony, Janowski (PentaTone Classics)
I am torn yet again when listening to the latest PentaTone recording with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra led by Marek Janowski. On the one hand, the audio is gloriously present, with tonal quality of the instruments holding up exceptionally over a wide dynamic range. The brass in particular float out of the speakers with a deep and sumptuous warmth and nary a hard edge. Janowski lets the orchestra play and knows how to best support the players.
But sometimes I wish the conductor wouldn't be so accommodating because the result here, as it was in the weekend last fall when the PSO recorded this live in Heinz Hall, is often staid. "Alpine Symphony" is not a symphony, despite the title, but a tone poem. Drama courses through it as much as the mountain stream that the hiker crosses in his (Strauss') ascent. Sure, it doesn't have the story of "Heldenleben" or "Elektra" but there is a definite need for surges of tempo and energy. If nothing else, they keep the massive and lengthy work from collapsing inward by setting the many quiet and reflective moments in relief. Janowski's approach, while allowing for gorgeous sound (providing a wonderful record of how the PSO musicians sounded in this decade), is ponderous to listen to at times.
Strauss' lesser-known "Macbeth" opens the disc with more push to be certain. Yet still Janowski has a tendency to hold back the tempo, which sometimes takes away from the sheer thrill of Strauss' daring writing.
-- Andrew Druckenbrod,, Post-Gazette classical music critic
The Sunday Times (London)
RICHARD STRAUSS *** (out of 5)
Eine Alpensinfonie; Macbeth Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, cond Marek Janowski Pentatone Classics PTC 5186339
my view that Eine Alpensinfonie, Richard Strauss's famous charting of
the ascent and descent of a mountain, and his last symphonic poem (it
was composed in 1915), contains some of his best writing post-Salome
This live recording is not the most immediately exciting. The opening apart, there's an inadequate sense of wonder. Although the storm scene excites just as it should, Janowski prefers to savour the experience thoughtfully, rather than thrill at it. In an account of real warmth, he makes the most of Strauss's tenderest, sweetest writing. The Macbeth here generates raw feeling.
Typically, we critics (those who are left) are territorial about our maestros. We like to be the ones who give you all the news on them and be the ones who review everything for you. I suppose I used to be that way more, but in the new world of journalism, it is a silly stand to take. You are going to get information elsewhere at time. I just want to provide consistently excellent coverage when I do. At least I try.
So, while I will eventually will say something about this new album (esp. since the following review really doesn't say much about Manfred Honeck, PSO music director), it makes little sense for us not to mention a new Honeck album just because it isn't available in the U.S. and I can't review it. His new disc with violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann is a European-only release for now, so we go to the astute comments of critic Nicholas Kenyon in the Observer of London:
July 26, 2009
Britten's violin concerto has never been among his most approachable
works, but Zimmermann's cool, lyrical, crystal-clear style suits it
perfectly, especially in the final Passacaglia, which gradually
acquires a huge, desolate power. Manfred Honeck's
Swedish Radio accompanies here, and the two Szymanowski concertos are
played by Antoni Wit's fine Warsaw Philharmonic. In these, Zimmermann
perhaps lacks some rhapsodic warmth, but the gloriously exotic sounds
of the First Concerto are magnificently realised, and the more
folk-inspired Second blossoms idiomatically. NICHOLAS KENYON Added: The Guardian (London), by Tim Ashley
This is a great album, though its contents may make it problematic for some.
Britten's Violin Concerto, modelled in part on Berg's and triggered by the outbreak of the Spanish civil war, was completed during the composer's controversial US exile and ranks among his most forceful pacifist statements.
Szymanowski's two Concertos, however, are so disparate in tone that the chances are you'll like one but not the other. Each plays without a break: otherwise, the First (1916) is very much a product of Szymanowski's exotic-erotic-ecstatic middle period, while the Second (1933) is darker, folk-based and altogether more disturbing. The performances are close on definitive. Soloist Frank Peter Zimmermann has the remarkable ability to adapt his tone to each work: he attains a unique level of tragic anguish in the Britten, but the craggy sound he deploys there contrasts sharply with the syrupy decadence he brings to Szymanowski's First and the heavyweight lyricism with which he plays the Second. The orchestral contributions are outstanding, too: the Warsaw Philharmonic under Antoni Wit are match-less in Szymanowski; for the Britten, Manfred Honeck conducts the Swedish Radio Symphony with a searching intensity that matches Zimmermann's own.
Benjamin Britten's violin concerto has never been among his most approachable works, but Zimmermann's cool, lyrical, crystal-clear style suits it perfectly, especially in the final Passacaglia, which gradually acquires a huge, desolate power. Manfred Honeck's Swedish Radio accompanies here, and the two Szymanowski concertos are played by Antoni Wit's fine Warsaw Philharmonic. In these, Zimmermann perhaps lacks some rhapsodic warmth, but the gloriously exotic sounds of the First Concerto are magnificently realised, and the more folk-inspired Second blossoms idiomatically.
The Guardian (London), by Tim Ashley
Me again: I finally got this Honeck disc (Aug. 23 -- okay, I realize this is a convoluted post and I won't do one like this again) and I have to say that I am yet again impressed by Honeck's abilities outside of his core repertoire (Austro-German). He has the Swedish RSO playing with precision and lustrous tone in the Britten concerto. There is some nice give and take with Zimmermann, too. A lively recording I would recommend of a worth work that is not so well-known.
Also, Honeck's new disc with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, of Mahler's Symphony No. 1, is out in Japan (available as an import at cdjapan.co, but no reviews yet. It will be released in the U.S. in a few months and should be a good one based on how tremendous the concerts were last Sept.