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Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 (Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck) (Hybrid SACD Review)

REVIEW OVERVIEW

The Performance
The Audio
The Supplements
Overall

SUMMARY

A thrilling performance of Beethoven's crowning symphonic achievement by Manfred Honeck and his Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra that in terms of sound and musical execution goes to the top of my list of recordings of this venerable work.

Maestro Manfred Honeck is in his twelfth season as music director of one of America’s top-tier musical organizations, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra now celebrating its 125th year. It is clear from this new recording of Ludwig van Beethoven’s towering Symphony No. 9, also called the “Choral” symphony, that the working relationship between conductor and orchestra has become a fruitful one as exemplified by this recording, the eleventh in Reference Recordings “Pittsburgh Live!” series on its FRESH! Imprint. In addition to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, this hybrid SACD disc features an accomplished quartet of vocal soloists—soprano Christina Landshamer, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, tenor Werner Güra, and bass Shenyang—and the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh led by Matthew Mehaffey. The Mendelssohn Choir has a long performing history with this orchestra and the hand-in-glove coordination of the all-important choral section attests to a level of familiarity that few other orchestras can equal.

The symphony is in four movements:

  1. Allegro ma no troppo, un poco maestoso 14:32
  2. Molto vivace 13:12
  3. Adagio molto e cantabile 12:34
  4. Finale 22:30

The four soloists and choir join in on the finale which was unique in Beethoven’s repertory as he became the first major composer to use voices in a symphony.  Even listeners who are not familiar with classical music will instantly recognize Beethoven’s setting of Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in the last movement, certainly one of the most stirring symphonic movements ever written.

What sets this recording apart from most of the two dozen other Beethoven Ninths in my personal collection is how effectively Maestro Honeck uses tempi that are much faster than most of his older predecessors. In fact, this disc’s playing time of 62:48 is second only to that of the 1952 Toscanini/NBC Orchestra recording that clocks in at just under 59 minutes! Yet, in the rapid pace adopted by Honeck and company that is faithful to Beethoven’s original intent, there is never a loss of control or dropped notes. With a finale that is even one-minute faster than that of Toscanini’s famous recording, this performance provides the most thrilling fourth movement I have ever heard.

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The Audio

The Sound Mirror recording team used five omnidirectional DPA 4006 microphones, supplemented with other spot mikes as needed. The final tracks were laid down at 256fs DSD on a Pyramix workstation.  I listened to this Beethoven Ninth as a 5.0 SACD on my home theater system and as a 2.0 SACD and 2.0 HDCD with its surround sound components turned off. The multi-channel version was an absolute revelation. For example,  in the second movement, the inner voices of individual woodwinds and strings were better articulated than what I recalled hearing in any of my other recordings of this work. The bass drums in the second movement were palpable and quite potent.  The low strings at the beginning of the fourth movement began almost inaudibly and gradually built to an impressive level. The voices of the soloists were reproduced with the more distant perspective that audiences would have heard during a live performance, rather than with the more forward perspective found in many previous studio recordings of this work.  What was also evident throughout the 5.0 SACD version was the prevailing spaciousness of the huge Heinz Hall, the home of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra where this recording was actually made.

Switching to the two-channel SACD layer, most of the sonic virtues of the multi-channel version were maintained minus some of the location space. The HDCD layer was the least impressive sonically but still yielded a very good account of this performance. Reference Recordings has also made this recording available in nine stereo download formats ranging from 44.1kHz/16-bit FLAC to 192kHz/24-bit WAV files.

The Supplements

An illustrated program booklet is the only supplement, but it is a humdinger that contains an extremely thorough analysis/explication of the symphony by Maestro Honeck, the text and translation of Schiller’s Ode to Joy, and pictures and backgrounds notes of the participating artists.

The Final Assessment

For those who are passionate about what is arguably the greatest symphonic work ever composed, no one recording will ever be enough. While the quartet of singers may not be very familiar to some listeners, they are vocally well matched and fit in perfectly with a work that is truly an ensemble piece. Honeck and his colleagues understood this unifying concept that now informs what is one of the very best performances of the Ninth Symphony that I have ever heard.  With sound that simply astounds and a musical pulse that continually thrills, this Beethoven Ninth joins the rarified air shared by a mere handful of recordings in my collection. Highest recommendation.


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Beethoven Symphony no.9 with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra led by Manfred Honeck is available February 12, 2020 on SACD from Reference Recordings.

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  • Label: Reference Recordings
  • Artist: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra | Manfred Honeck (Conductor)
  • Producer: Dirk Sobotka
  • Run Time: 62:48
  • Original MSRP: $19.98
  • Street Date: 12 February 2021
  • Audio Format: SACD | CD | DSD 5.0 | DSD 2.0 | HDCD 2.0
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