Manfred Honeck, PSO release new Anton Bruckner recording
People sometimes wonder what music means, especially when there are no lyrics and the title is generic. Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra provide a compelling answer for Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 with their new recording, which is being released today on the Reference Recordings label.
Bruckner was an Austrian composer and devout Catholic who lived during the height of the Romantic era. He began as a church organist and was a master of improvisation, but his symphonies are his major musical legacy.
Although he began his Ninth Symphony in 1887, progress was slowed when he spent several years revising some of his earlier pieces. He completed three movements of the Ninth before he died in 1896. None of the attempts to complete his sketches for the finale is convincing. Thus, Bruckner’s Ninth is a great unfinished symphony, akin to one of Franz Schubert’s most famous masterpieces.
The spiritual richness of Bruckner’s symphonies is unmistakable, yet Honeck’s interpretation breaks new ground in understanding the specific connection between musical ideas and religious meaning. His program notes for the new CD are a practical guide to the music which make it easy to correlate his words with his performance.
Honeck, like Bruckner a devout Austrian Catholic, believes there is a close connection between the text of the “Agnus Dei” portion of the Mass and the slow final movement of the Ninth. He identifies particular musical ideas with sins of the world (“peccata mundi”) and prayers for mercy and for peace. The meaning of the earlier two movements is similarly clarified for both primary musical ideas and smaller gestures.
The proof of Honeck’s verbal interpretation is the enthralling performance he leads. It is a bold performance marked in part by extremes – the very loud and the very soft, slow pacing and tremendous speed (in the middle section of the second movement), and immense power and meekness. Yet it is the nuance with which Honeck and the musicians tell the story which most touches the heart. Honeck’s Bruckner Ninth is a performance of the utmost devotion and conviction which reaches the most transcendent heights when speaking softly.
The new recording was made at concerts in February 2018, and captures the sound of the Pittsburgh Symphony in Heinz Hall with exceptional fidelity. The orchestra sounds fabulous, every section and every soloist playing perfectly attuned to the spirit of the music.
Honeck and the orchestra will perform and record Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 in June 2020.
Mark Kanny is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.