Classical Album Review: Pittsburgh Symphony plays Beethoven & Stucky
By Jonathan Blumhofer
We’ve got ourselves another winner in this ongoing Pittsburgh/Beethoven series. Warmly recommended.
Manfred Honeck’s ’s ongoing survey of the Beethoven symphonies with the Pittsburgh Symphony has headed in a variety of directions. There have been standalone releases (the Ninth) as well as pairings within the set (the Fifth and Seventh) and pieces influenced by it (the Eroica and Richard Strauss’s Horn Concerto No. 1). Now comes a decidedly environmental-themed disc, setting the Sixth (Pastoral) in conversation with Steven Stucky’s Silent Spring.
Stucky’s score was commissioned by the orchestra to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s eponymous book. Less a meditation on her text than an abstract musical argument that draws inspiration from four Carson titles (The Sea Around us, The Lost Woods, Rivers of Doubt, and Silent Spring), it is, nevertheless, an agreeable, seventeen-minute-long effort.
As in most Stucky works, the broad gestures are laid out clearly. Plays of contrast (such as those between spare and stentorian textures) as well as interesting instrumental combinations mark the opening “The Sea Around Us.” In “The Lost Woods,” there’s kind of conflict between falling and rising musical statements, while the third movement, “Rivers of Death,” features vigorous percussion attacks as well as menacing, driving figures darting about the orchestral fabric. Out of this emerges the concluding “Silent Spring,” which begins intensely only to gradually peter out.
The Pittsburgher’s performance is nothing if not very well balanced and strongly colored. Solos short and long – for tuba, contrabassoon, and English horn, among them – are all well done. And the orchestra has clearly got a firm grasp on Stucky’s highly intellectual (but still accessible) personal style. A timeless masterpiece Silent Spring probably isn’t, but that doesn’t necessarily matter; it’s forceful, well-written music and given a decisive outing here.
Beethoven’s Sixth, on the other hand, has proven highly durable, and this despite a relative lack of musical conflict (at least when compared to the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies). Honeck’s present reading, though, doesn’t want for direction, personality, or sheer vigor. On the contrary: the opening movement is fresh and spirited, marked by excellent balances, keen dynamic sculpting, bold contrasts of texture and mood, as well as active crescendos. Every note, so it seems, is fired with purpose.
That holds true for the rest of the performance. The “Scene by the brook’s” phrasings are winsomely directed and flexible. Spry rhythms and limber syncopated figures – as well as a propensity for just leaning into the beat – ensure that the “Merry assembly of country folk” is appropriately rustic. The “Thunderstorm” roils mightily while the concluding “Shepherd’s Song” unfolds with real generosity of spirit and a wonderful attention to issues of balance (inner voices – especially in the strings – come out impressively).
This is, then, yet more fine Beethoven from Honeck and his orchestra. The coupling with the Stucky is fitting. Taken with the album’s bracingly clean engineering and insightful liner notes (including the conductor’s in-depth discussion of his approach to Beethoven interpretation), and we’ve got ourselves another winner in this ongoing Pittsburgh/Beethoven series. Warmly recommended.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.