Honeck, Barnatan and Philharmonic serve up exceptional Mahler, Beethoven
There’s little need for any introductions: conductor Manfred Honeck is in town, leading the New York Philharmonic in a subscription program made up of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto, and Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. On hand as soloist is pianist Inon Barnatan. There’s nothing out of the ordinary about any of this, except for the exceptional, integrated chops and sensibilities of the guest performers and the orchestra in David Geffen Hall.
Barnatan is in his third and final season as the Philharmonic’s first Artist-in-Association, a position designed to develop and boost the careers of talented young artists. Here’s hoping it pays off, because for the past three seasons the pianist has done nothing but impress.
With Honeck leading crisp, well-balanced, colorful playing from the orchestra, Barnatan delivered a vibrant performance, beautiful and thrilling. His technique is supreme, and he displayed it via an ultra-smooth legato that still allowed for clear articulation of each note in a phrase—and in this concerto, there are multiple ascending and descending sixteenth note phrases that extend across multiple measures. With playing like this, the music flowed like a river.
Barnatan maintained absolutely steady tempos, which as Artur Rubinstein demonstrated, is a fruitful interpretative path with Beethoven, whose music is built on syncopation and rhythmic tension. This was an ideal tack for the concerto, as it made for complete coordination between soloist and orchestra—integrated attacks and cadences had a satisfying weight.
The steady tempos also paid off in the contrast with the cadenza in the first movement. The pianists played Beethoven’s original cadenzas, and the first one is enormous. Barnatan played with a sense of velocity that was all the more exciting for his ease of control, and his steadiness brought out the structural invention in the music. Then his judicious modulations of tempo brought out the improvisational flair and depths that sounded as if they were coming straight out of Beethoven’s own hands.
That feeling was consistent with Barnatan’s pianism non-showy and dedicated to the music. The Largo was lovely and understated, and the Rondo finale (like the cheeky grace notes in the opening movement) full of vivacious humor. Energy burst forth from orchestra and pianist.
Called back by the applause, Barnatan played a fast, powerful finale from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 6.
With Honeck, one expects interpretations of the likes of Beethoven and Mahler that are non-idiosyncratic, attentive to details, and expressive of the overall form. The Mahler performance was all that, and more.
The conductor added a note to the program in which he explained his interpretive view. Despite the expressive detail Mahler wrote in his scores, Honeck felt there was the need to connect the symphony to the folk music of Austria and Bohemia, ancestral lands for both the conductor and the composer before him.
Honeck heard that quality predominantly in the second and third movements of the symphony. In the second, he put a little extra emphasis on the second beat of the rustic ländler. Then in the trio section of the scherzo, he had the orchestra play with a wonderful Viennese quality—less portamento than usual, but a much stronger and more natural flavor of schmalz and schlag.
That and the great parodic slow movement were full of exceptional music-making. Timothy Cobb’s muted bass solo to introduce the Bruder Martin theme was exactly as Mahler desired, a sense of courage fighting through insecurity. The beautiful orchestral sound in the klezmer music was itself a exemplary of the overall performance, in which the balances were superb, even with the offstage trumpets in the first movement.
The refinement of the playing, the attention to every marking in the score, were just two parts of the whole. The other was the spirit, which was full of kaleidoscopic energy. Through tempos and dynamics that felt intuitively correct, the performance pushed contrasts between light and dark to an extreme, so moments of wrenching crisis were followed by the glory of the sun bursting through the clouds.
Honeck’s control of the overall shape was seductive, with a feeling of both relaxation and mass in the first movement that built, via the musical and emotional vicissitudes of the middle movements, to an explosive finale. The vicious intensity of the opening fanfare was matched, then surpassed, by the exuberance of the final chords.
This program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 2 p.m. Friday, and 8 p.m. Saturday. nyphil.org.