Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 - Schulhoff: Five Pieces / Honeck, Pittsburgh Symphony

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Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony has accompanied me since my earliest years as a conductor. Additionally, it took on special significance for me as it was the first major work that I conducted together with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 2006, unaware that they were looking for a new Music Director at the time. I take pleasure in returning to this symphony and continually discovering new elements in the score and it gives me the greatest joy to record this work with the fantastic musicians of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

When I heard Erwin Schulhoff ’s Five Pieces for String Quartet in a wonderful concert by the Pittsburgh based Clarion Quartet a few years ago, I immediately had the idea to arrange these five jewels for large orchestra. Upon listening to them again, it was quite clear to me how to orchestrate this effectively for full orchestra and I knew that I wanted this to be the next in our line of new works performed and recorded for the first time. - MH

In late 1888, after a performance of his Fifth Symphony, Tchaikovsky wrote that he was now “convinced that this symphony has failed. There is something so repulsive in it, such a degree of screwiness and in addition insincerity, artificiality....” History would prove his assessment entirely incorrect, as the Fifth Symphony has long been regarded an indisputable masterpiece.

Following some years of study in Vienna, Schulhoff returned to his native Prague in 1924/ It was in that same year, on August 8, 1924, that the Five Pieces for String Quartet (composed the year before) received their premiere in Salzburg as part of the festival of the International Society for New Music.


Most defining is Honeck’s attempt to make Tchaikovsky’s struggle with fate believable and gripping. There are an infinite number of details in this interpretation that make one sit up and take notice and which are also described in detail in the introductory text by Honeck himself. Immensely important is the enhancement and intensification of secondary lines and the transparency achieved in the orchestral sound, the inner dialogue as well, for example between strings and winds. Not since Kitajenko’s recording have I experienced this symphony with such intensity, and the beginning of the Andante is simply unforgettable.

The dance-like pieces for string quartet by Erwin Schulhoff, which the latter dedicated to Darius Milhaud, have been arranged for orchestra by Manfred Honeck together with Tomas Ille. And because this arrangement is so well done, real value is added. Honeck and Ille, together with the brilliantly disposed Pittsburgh orchestra, get to the heart of the matter with great esprit. Finesse, imagination and orchestral color enhance the expressivity and sonic pleasure. The result is, as it were, a whole new, absolutely brilliant piece that is far from the original and a lot of fun to listen to.

This was a breakthrough moment for the visionary Schulhoff who desired to provoke and push forward to new ground, thoroughly interested in the modern trends of the time including expressionism, Jazz, and Dadaism.

-- Pizzicato

The dilemma of how to bring a venerable old warhorse back to life is admirably resolved by Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in a very attractive new offering on the Reference Recordings label. The nag in question is none other than Peter Illich Tchakovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, arguably the most popular symphony in the repertoire. In Honeck’s hands, it comes across as the most spirited of young thoroughbreds.

Beginning with Honeck’s superb control of dynamics in the slow, quiet dawning of the Andante in the opening movement, with bassoon and flutes making their presence felt in a very quiet mid-section before the music really flares up dramatically in the Allegro con anima section. We’ve heard it all before, of course, in this most-frequently presented of symphonies, but it really makes a stirring impression here.

The companion to the Tchaikovsky in this program is Five Pieces for String Quartet by the Austro-Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff (1894–1942), here realized in a splendid arrangement for orchestra by Manfred Honeck and Tomáš Ille. The movements are (1) Alla Valse Viennese, with a very energetic opening, (2) Alla Serenata: Allegro con moto, featuring perky, whimsical flutes and other woodwinds and brass that are used very effectively, not to say aggressively, (3) Alla Czeza (in the manner of a Czech dance), marked Molto Allegro, very impetuous, with percussive accents, (4) Alla Tango Milonga: Andante, originally a Brazilian dance, with a languid, mysterious opening, later marked by an upsurge of emotion as it progresses, and (5) Alla Tarantella, a lively, perpetual-motion dance marked Prestissimo con fuoco (as fast as possible, and with fiery intensity), its savagery interspersed with murky interludes.

There’s a lot of musical substance in Five Pieces, packed into a mere 15 minutes’ playing time.

-- Audio Video Club of Atlanta

Manfred Honeck began his long association with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra way back in 2006 by conducting a critically acclaimed performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony that was subsequently released on CD on the Exton label. Returning to this work after many years, his interpretation has, if anything, become even more compelling and here enjoys the benefits of a far superior recording with a wide dynamic range and a wonderful richness of sound.

As before, Honeck’s overriding objective has been to revivify a work that in lesser hands can easily lose its freshness and originality. To achieve this, he has followed Tchaikovsky’s carefully delineated performance instructions to the letter, investing every musical phrase with a wealth of insight, detail and colour. From the outset, Honeck’s infinitely varied texturing creates a huge amount of suspense and uncertainty in the gloomy lower string harmonies that underpin the clarinet’s first statement of the fate motif. The ensuing Allegro con anima, taken at a fast and driving tempo, has plenty of forward momentum, but Honeck adopts a sufficiently flexible approach in the contrasting second idea to ensure the more reflective moments have that necessary feeling of repose. As you’d expect, the Pittsburgh Symphony responds with phenomenal virtuosity to all the twists and turns in Honeck’s interpretation. The swooning string melodies are delivered with the same degree of warmth that you’d find in the great central-European orchestras, while the brass, in particular the quartet of horns, bring thrilling urgency to the big climaxes. But perhaps the most startling passage comes at the end of the movement where for once the murky descending line in the double basses is strikingly audible. With this particular sound image lodged in your mind, there’s an almost seamless transition into the resonant chords that open the slow movement, and this provides a wonderful cushion of sound for the magical horn solo.

There are many other moments in this performance that made me sit up and appreciate Tchaikovsky’s inventiveness in a completely new light. A good example comes in the third movement, where the isolated notes on the muted horn cut through the texture casting dark shadows over the elegant mood of the Waltz. Likewise, Honeck’s finely attuned concept of orchestral balance and brilliantly choreographed control of tempo brings tremendous dividends to the Finale. The roaring timpani roll that unleashes the Finale’s Allegro vivace section is simply electrifying, and what follows, with the raucous almost Stravinksian dialogue between wind and strings imitating the sound of balalaikas, is even more arresting.

There’s plenty of energy and imagination in Schulhoff’s Five Pieces for String Quartet, an unexpected coupling performed here in a fantastically resourceful full orchestral arrangement by Honeck and Tomás Ille. Schulhoff’s sequence of dances, ranging from a distorted waltz and a sultry Tango to a frenzied Tarantella, is a typical product of the roaring 1920s, and in this new version should certainly gain more admirers for this fascinating and immensely talented composer.

-- BBC Music Magazine

Product Description:

  • Release Date: July 28, 2023

  • Catalog Number: FR-752SACD

  • UPC: 030911275228

  • Label: Reference Recordings

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Period: Romantic, 20th Century

  • Composer: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Erwin Schulhoff

  • Conductor: Manfred Honeck

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra


  1. Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64

    Composer: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

    Ensemble: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

    Conductor: Manfred Honeck

  2. 5 Pieces for String Quartet

    Composer: Erwin Schulhoff

    Ensemble: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

    Conductor: Manfred Honeck