February 18, 2021


Beethoven: Symphony No. 9. Christina Landshamer, soprano; Jennifer Johnson Cano, mezzo-soprano; Werner Güra, tenor; Shenyang, bass-baritone; Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conducted by Manfred Honeck. Reference Recordings. $19.98 (SACD).

     What, listeners may well ask, is the purpose of yet another of the innumerable recordings of Beethoven’s Ninth? No matter how fine it may be, no matter how many details of performance may differ between it and the many, many other versions available, exactly what benefits will an audience get from considering the purchase of Beethoven’s Ninth again – especially the year after the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth, in which the pandemic-diminished celebrations nevertheless produced a significant number of new discs of all things Beethovenian?

     This is something of an eternal argument when it comes to the best-known classical music. To some, it seems obvious that “enough is enough,” that no matter how good any additional recording of a well-known work may be, it is simply not needed. To others, there are near-infinite ways of presenting a symphony as crucial to all of classical music as Beethoven’s Ninth, and any recording that has something new to say is certainly entitled to say it.

     In the case of the performance led by Manfred Honeck and released by Reference Recordings, it happens that there is much new to say – both in words and in the music. Honeck is a conductor for whom, no matter how well the music speaks for itself, it speaks even more powerfully when coupled with explanatory words. To that end, he provides, in the booklet accompanying this SACD, some exceptional insight into how a conductor thinks about a work as seminal as this one, and as frequently performed. And he makes it possible, even easy, for non-experts to follow his thinking, since the extended essay gives a host of specific references to measures of the music and the timings at which those specific measures can be heard in the recording.

      Listeners who still think a conductor’s work consists mainly of standing on a podium and waving a stick will learn definitively from this essay-plus-performance what conductors themselves know very well: the vast majority of their work happens well before the performance, much of it even before the rehearsals. The insight Honeck offers into the process is exceptional, and the ways in which his thinking results in audible differences between this performance and others are many – and are abundantly clear to anyone who reads what he has to say and hears how those thoughts turn into an interpretation.

     Of course, not everyone will hear everything Honeck says he does – being able to hear details and place them within a totality is one major element of conducting, but is not necessary for audience members – but the chance to understand a conductor’s thinking, and its effect on the musical experience, takes this already excellent performance to an exceptionally high level. “Admittedly, these are small nuances and details,” Honeck says after explaining some elements of the score; but it is an aggregation of little things that produces the overall effect of an hour-long score. So when Honeck writes that, at one point in the first movement, he asks “the winds and timpani (all marked fortissimo tenuto) to radically withdraw so as to allow the important original motive in the violins to shine,” he is explaining why conductors do not follow scores slavishly – or, to put it another way, why performances do not all sound the same. Similarly, when he says that, near the first movement’s end, “I reduce the tempo and pay particular attention to the wave-like secondary figures in the strings,” he makes it clear that he knows he is deviating from the precise layout of the score – but believes he brings forth its communication more effectively by not taking it 100% literally.

     Honeck, like every first-rate conductor, has studied the score in excruciating detail before beginning any rehearsals with the Pittsburgh Symphony: that, the studying and analyzing and figuring out, is the biggest part of what a conductor does, no matter how well-known the work being presented. This lets Honeck explain to listeners the rhythmic joke that Beethoven gives to the timpani in the second movement; the difficulty posed by Beethoven’s use of the rare-for-him indication mezza voce in the third movement; and some of the many, many challenges posed by the finale. Honeck discusses the always-perplexing issue of Beethoven’s tempo markings, the “exactly six recitative sections” that open the last movement, the controversy over the tempo that Beethoven wanted for the finale’s Turkish march, and much more. Honeck’s writing, although erudite enough, is easy to follow and understand, and his repeated references to specific times in this specific performance make it possible to hear Beethoven’s Ninth with a new level of understanding. That is one major value of this new recording of an oft-recorded work.

     And it is worth mentioning that the performance is exemplary in and of itself: skip Honeck’s verbal explanations altogether and you will still find this reading exceptionally communicative – you just will not know as much about why and how it communicates so well. Of course, Beethoven (unlike many of today’s composers) did not expect his audience to “read up on” his music before hearing it so as to maximize their understanding of what he was trying to say. And one of the great things about the Ninth is that it comes across with such potency in so many different ways, so many different approaches, that it is not necessary to understand intellectually how Beethoven achieved his effects in order to experience and respond to them. Nevertheless, additional understanding makes Beethoven’s accomplishment in this symphony all the more impressive.

     So reader/listeners get to find out here that in the third movement, “the main voice is written in the low fourth horn part instead of the first horn,” and that Honeck (in common with most conductors) nevertheless gives it to the first horn player – a questionable decision if one is inclined to question such things. Honeck also mentions that for the finale, “it was important to me, contrary to tradition, to choose lighter, more agile voices.” Again, one can question this decision if one wishes to do so – although the agility is clearly crucial when Honeck drives the music at an unusually fast pace, as he does in much of the finale. In any case, performance decisions like these are exactly what set one reading of Beethoven’s Ninth apart from others – and very much justify additional releases of the music. Ultimately, what matters is whether all Honeck’s analysis – the part he shares with readers and the much larger part that goes into his planning and execution of this performance – results in a convincing and meaningful performance. Anyone who hears this beautifully played and sung, excellently recorded rendition of the music, whether or not he or she chooses to quibble with some of the details and decision-making, will have a marvelous musical and emotional experience. That is ultimately what this music is all about – what so much great music is all about. And that is the most meaningful lesson of all.

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