Manfred Honeck and Pittsburgh Symphony’s sterling Bruckner 9

It is rare when the quality of the performance, the clarity of the recording, and the insightfulness of the liner notes all come together in one outstanding release. Manfred Honeck’s recording of a live performance of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony in February 2018 with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in Pittsburgh’s Heinz Hall, released on the Reference Recordings label, is one such rarity.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is widely recognized as one of the world’s finest, and its Austrian-born music director is one of today’s most distinguished conductors. The recording, by Dirk Sobotka and Mark Donohue of Boston’s sound/mirror, is one of the best orchestral recordings I have heard in years, with breathtaking dynamic range, pristine clarity, and presence that can be equaled only by attending a concert live in a great hall.

Symphony No. 9 was Bruckner’s final symphonic work. The fourth and final movement was left incomplete at his death. A number of attempts have been made to reconstruct the movement, none of them entirely successful. Most conductors, like Honeck here, choose to perform only the completed first three movements. Bruckner was a devoutly religious man, and his Ninth Symphony is perhaps his most spiritual in content and mood. The musical style is thoroughly 19th Century German romantic.

Honeck’s interpretation is out of that tradition, augmented by the sterling playing of his orchestra. It is the best performance of this piece that I have ever heard. That would be enough by itself to earn this recording the highest recommendation.

But what makes this release unique is Honeck’s liner notes. He goes into great detail about what he wanted to accomplish musically and how he set about doing it. He discusses, with timing references, what he sees in the score, and how he attempted to realize his insights. Here’s an example:

Beginning in bar 163 (18:46), Bruckner now introduces innumerable repeating eight notes, first in the second and third oboes, and later the first oboe, plus second and third clarinets. I am reminded here of the beginning of the Holy Mass when in the traditional confession of guilt, a believing Catholic strikes his hand several times on his chest at the words “Mea Culpa.”

Even if you are not a lover of Bruckner’s music, you will be after hearing this recording and reading Honeck’s liner notes.

Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 9
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; Manfred Honeck, conductor
Reference Recordings FR-7333 SACD

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