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LEBRECHT LISTENS | Restorative Brahms From One Of The Best Orchestras In America

By Norman Lebrecht on November 26, 2021


Brahms: Symphony No. 4; MacMillan: Larghetto for Orchestra (Reference Recordings)


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Ever since Samuel Barber’s Adagio and Gustav Mahler’s Adagietto became the standard works of public mourning and consolation, the first in the 1940s, the second in the 1970s, the search has been on for an alternative orchestral offering of sombre yet hopeful contemplation.

When the Pittsburgh Symphony commissioned the Scottish composer James MacMillan to mark the tenth anniversary of its Austrian music director, Manfred Honeck, his thoughts turned inward to their shared Roman Catholic faith. The Larghetto, based on MacMillan’s choral setting of Psalm 51, moves from a Miserere starting point to something altogether more encouraging, an organic optimism that transcends present woes and looks to bright eternity. I would add it without hesitation to commemorative concerts for the COVID era. It’s the work of a fine composer writing at his very best.

The performance of Brahms’ fourth symphony is furnished with astonishingly helpful booklet notes by Honeck, explaining his interpretative decisions on tempi and balance. In legato, for instance, the former Vienna Philharmonic violinist alters his normal practice of getting the strings to bow together in favour of more rapid bowing motions, yielding a multi-layered sound that is more in keeping with rich Brahms texture.

His approach to the symphony is decidedly less flashy than the norm, and all the more satisfying for it. Unlike noisier batons, Honeck allows the symphony to evolve from roots upwards, very much in the manner of Beethoven’s ninth symphony, in which Brahms was emotionally so embedded. The connections are unavoidable throughout this illuminating performance.

After two years without hearing live Brahms, I find this performance restorative in every sense, with a touch of Carlos Kleiber at its turning points. The regenerating steel town of Pittsburgh has a symphony orchestra to match the best in America.

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