Austrian-born conductor Manfred Honeck is the father of six and a devout Catholic. He attends Mass several times a week and prays before each concert. Since 2008, he has been the music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. His tenure has been renewed four times, and now extends through the 2027-2028 season.
Honeck’s remarkable success is due not only to the freshness and originality he brings to familiar orchestral masterpieces, but to his willingness to listen to the perspectives of his orchestra members. It might be said that he strives for a “musical synodality,” sharing the same goal that Bach affixed to all his musical scores: “Soli Deo Gloria.”
I first came to know of Honeck and his outstanding orchestra through a New Yorker article that I read two years ago, in which Alex Ross, one of America’s finest music critics, asserts: “After listening to the Pittsburgh Symphony’s recent recording of the Bruckner Ninth Symphony for the tenth or eleventh time, I began planning a trip to Pittsburgh, in the hope of understanding how such a formidable achievement had come about.”
I too was struck by Honeck’s striking interpretation. His attention to detail and ability to clarify various musical textures while also drawing them into a coherent whole are masterful. Though by no means tutored in the finer points of musical analysis, I resonated with Ross’s assessment of the achievement: “Savagely precise in detail, and almost scarily sublime in cumulative effect, it gives notice that the right orchestra and the right conductor can unleash unsuspected energies in familiar works.”
The Bruckner Ninth is only one of several splendid recordings by Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony. Some of them have been nominated for Grammys, and one received the award in 2018. The sound quality of each recording is magnificent, and each is accompanied by Honeck’s extensive and illuminating notes, in which he outlines his understanding of, and approach to, the score.
The orchestra’s most recent release is an astounding performance of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, accompanied by a recent composition by the Scottish composer James MacMillan. What was said of Honeck’s Bruckner recording applies equally to this one. As one critic confessed: “Does someone who already owns four different recordings of Johannes Brahms’ Symphony Number 4 really need another? Yes. . . . there’s magic happening here.”
But the “magic” is no facile entertainment, no retreat into some bucolic world. Brahms’s Fourth probes what Charles Taylor calls secularity’s “immanent frame” with unromantic honesty, evoking a world at once painfully beautiful and utterly desolate.
In the first movement, we seem to enter upon a centuries-old conversation. Weariness erupts at times into belligerence, and then subsides into moments of tenderness, only to end in what sounds like a cry of anguish. A second movement of intense lyricism, colored by nostalgia, follows, but peters out in futility. Promethean struggle marks the third movement: a steady drumbeat of progress that collapses into acrid dissonance.
But the fourth movement takes the symphony beyond even these forebodings. Paradoxically, the movement is based upon a melody Brahms borrows from Bach. The theme from Bach’s Cantata 150, “I long for thee, O Lord,” unfolds in thirty variations. Here, tenderness and terror vie as the music displays an impassioned search for resolution. But the lyrical flute solo is overwhelmed by the martial outbursts of horns and percussion. Is it only a fevered imagination that hears the tramp of goose-stepping armies?
Like the critic cited above, I have four other recordings of the Brahms Fourth. But none (even that of the legendary Carlos Kleiber) approaches the sheer desolation that Honeck conjures in the final notes. Shuddering, one carries away the apocalyptic sense of humanity crushed.
As previously mentioned, the riveting recording of Brahms is followed by a composition by James MacMillan. The “Larghetto for Orchestra” was composed in honor of Honeck’s tenth anniversary with the Pittsburgh Symphony.
“Larghetto for Orchestra” it is no mere “filler” on the disc, but integral to Honeck’s vision. Developed from an earlier a cappella setting of Psalm 51 by MacMillan, the Miserere, it appears as a graced collaboration between Catholic conductor and Catholic composer. The Fourth Symphony's anguish, bordering on despair, yields to the Psalm’s cry for mercy. The forlorn notes of the brass instruments are tempered by soft echoes of Gregorian chant; the darkness of night tinged by a dawning of hope.
Listening to the entire recording—the harrowing Brahms giving way to MacMillan’s intimations of transcendence—I thought of Dante and Virgil emerging from the darkness of hell into purgatorial day. Though I would not dare deviate from Bach’s Passions for Good Friday music listening, I cannot think of a more appropriate recording than Honeck’s for Holy Saturday: the day we profess that Christ descended into hell, bearing his Cross of mercy and renewal to redeem repentant sinners.
Robert P. Imbelli is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York.
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