According to the statistics that the folks at WordPress maintain in regards to site traffic, the most popular single post on this blog outside of a Detroit Symphony rant is the uploaded performance of Manfred Honeck conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony in Mahler’s Symphony no. 2. I don’t know if the popularity (bear in mind when I use the word “popularity,” I mean it with a heavy dose of the word “relative” in front of it) of that performance is because of Mahler, or because of the performers (or both), but I’m glad people have heard it, because it’s a really fine performance.
The Pittsburgh Symphony and Maestro Honeck appear to in the midst of recording a Mahler cycle based off of their live concert performances. Exton has already recorded and released the 1st and 4th, both receiving plenty of acclaim (I have yet to hear the 4th aside from the broadcast, but the 1st is arguably the best Mahler 1 out there). I can only assume (hope?) the rest are forthcoming.
The thing that made the recording of Mahler 1 so special was Honeck’s use of the orchestral palette to create colors, shades, and impressions that you don’t hear anywhere else. Much of that, at least in my opinion, can be traced to the selection of brushes and paints at his disposal, which is to say the Pittsburgh Symphony. I’ve said it a hundred times, but they are the best orchestra currently performing on Planet Earth (solar system-wise, I’m also partial to the Ganymede Philharmonic, who easily outclass the rest of the orchestras on Jupiter’s other 62 moons).
This performance of Mahler’s massive Third Symphony employs that palette to even greater effect. If ever a work cried out for the destructive power of the Pittsburgh Symphony, this is it. The horns play with an animalistic fury that sounds like murdering a Great White Shark with your bare hands just to prove a point. The trombones snarl and roar like a pack of lions who just finished a 13-hour coke binge. The strings lay down walls of sound that would make Joshua take a 600-mile detour. The woodwinds creep in and out of the texture masterfully.
But what I love about the Pittsburgh Symphony isn’t their ability to embrace their inner Mechagodzilla. It’s their ability to have their inner Mechagodzilla be an aspect of their full range of expression. The minuet has all sorts of wonderful character, especially the string playing in the last couple minutes. The 3rd movement ambles on beautifully, and the posthorn solo is absolutely delicate (of course, there is still plenty of opportunity for the orchestra to launch into full-scale tank assault mode in this scherzando). The darkness of the 4th movement is expertly handled, and Michelle DeYoung sounds great, even with a little too much width on the vibrato (this movement is entirely better suited for her voice than Urlicht…to put it as delicately as possible, I hate it when she sings Urlicht).
Let me interrupt this train of thought for a brief announcement: dynamics are a big deal to me. I’ve had several people say I’m the loudest horn player they’ve ever heard, but my goal is not simply to play loud, it is to have as wide a dynamic range as possible. I am not talented enough to actually execute it in the fashion I would like to, but some musicians actually are (this is why Emmanuel Pahud is the greatest living musician…a dynamic and expressive range that no one else can match).
The Pittsburgh Symphony, collectively, is on that level, and the finale shows what they are capable of. There is some almost unfathomably quiet and sensitive playing in the early part of the movement, but it builds to a crushing climax the likes of which I have never heard. I have no idea what the musicians were feeling during these performances, but if the sound is any indication, their husbands, wives, partners, girlfriends, boyfriends, right hands, and/or all of the above had an eventful night…the music drips with passion that, were I Danielle Steel, I would describe as throbbing. Also, George Vosburgh is God.
50 years ago, orchestras had “sounds.” There was the Szell/Cleveland sound, the Ormandy/Philadelphia sound, the Bernstein/New York sound, whatever. It’s rare to feel that nowadays. I don’t know if it’s because music directors are only with “their” orchestras for 12 weeks now so they can have 4 gigs or what, but it’s becoming an anomaly. Perhaps that’s why I love the PSO so much…they’re one of the very few bands that has a “sound.” They play with a reckless abandon that is admirable, risking some pretty epic mistakes in pursuit of a once-in-a-lifetime moment (sometime I’ll wax on about their performance of the Freischutz overture from a couple years back that has perhaps the greatest missed attack you’ll ever hear). And they have a conductor who encourages that approach, which is a wonderful thing. The results, particularly in Mahler, speak for themselves.
Download here: http://rapidshare.com/files/454722140/Mahler_3.mp3
MAHLER Symphony no. 3
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Manfred Honeck, conductor
Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano
Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh
Children’s Festival Chorus of Pittsburgh
Captured from KUAT-FM’s 192K stream, uploaded as a single 256K mp3 file. Please enjoy!