BEETHOVEN Symphony No 3 STRAUSS Horn Concerto (Honeck)
Reading Manfred Honeck’s extensive booklet note (nearly 10 single-spaced pages on the Eroica alone) before playing the CD left me slightly apprehensive. His historical and analytical observations are persuasive but his disclosure of the many details he sought to spotlight – here adding ‘subtle accents’ to elucidate a ‘hidden’ figure in the violins, or there taking time to ‘bring out the different characters and expression’ in an unusual harmonic progression – gave a suggestion of interpretative fussiness.
I needn’t have worried. There’s nothing even remotely studied about Honeck’s performance, unless one counts a tendency to anticipate sudden changes in dynamics. He pays unusual attention to detail, yes – note straight away the gently blossoming (and unmarked) crescendo on the ascending E flat major triad of the opening theme – but this never inhibits the music’s momentum or trajectory. The first movement is powerfully propulsive, in fact, with the full complement of Pittsburgh’s strings sounding as lithe as a chamber orchestra. Listen, say, to the springy accents at 0'27" or to the remarkable clarity and inexorable drive in the dizzying motivic tangle starting at 9'17".
In the Marcia funebre, Honeck plays with chiaroscuro, painting the opening with dusky, febrile string tone and then gradually lifting the shadows in the maggiore segment while also allowing the musicians greater freedom to expressively limn their phrases. Indeed, the interpretation is strongly characterised from first note to last, with a particularly rambunctious and eventful Scherzo and finale – savour the earthy rhythms in the latter’s Hungarian verbunkos variation at 3'52", for example, or the exultant, rustic rasp of horns in the Scherzo’s Trio.
William Caballero, Pittsburgh’s principal horn, shines in so many of the Eroica’s most memorable passages that it’s no wonder Reference chose to fill out the disc with a brilliant account of Strauss’s First Concerto. Caballero has a more outdoorsy tone than Dennis Brain, whose 1947 recording with Alceo Galliera retains its power to astonish (EMI, 10/92), although this new version offers marvels of its own, from the long, arching phrases Caballero lavishes on lyrical passages to the Mendelssohnian playfulness he brings to the finale. Although taken from concerts five years apart, both works are vividly recorded.