Honeck, Philharmonic shed new light on “New World”

Wed Dec 11, 2013 at 4:11 pm
Anne-Sophie Mutter performed Dvorak's Violin Concerto with Manfred Honeck and the New York Philharmonic Tuesday night at Avery Fisher Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

Anne-Sophie Mutter performed Dvořák’s Violin Concerto with Manfred Honeck and the New York Philharmonic Tuesday night at Avery Fisher Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

The “one-night-only” program is something of a rarity for symphony orchestras these days, but we got one Tuesday night, when Manfred Honeck led the New York Philharmonic in a stirring program of Dvořák favorites. Rehearsal conditions aren’t ideal for one-offs like these, but the Philharmonic sounded right at home under Honeck’s direction.

The Carnival Overture opened the program, the orchestra playing with tight discipline in a sparkling and spirited performance. Honeck’s reading was detailed, overflowing with charm. A violinist and violist himself, he clearly knows how to bring the best out of a string section, and here they played with crisp articulation and varied vibrato. The performance was thrilling, but Honeck kept a tight rein—the musicians followed precisely even when Honeck dug in his spurs for the coda.

The big-ticket draw for this program was Anne-Sophie Mutter, on hand to tackle Dvořák’s Violin Concerto. Though it requires a certain amount of technical proficiency from the soloist, Dvořák’s concerto is not as demanding as those by Brahms, Tchaikovsky, or Sibelius.

On Tuesday Mutter made the concerto sound much more difficult than it is. Right from the start, her intonation was suspect, only rarely sitting directly in the center of the note. Flubbed notes and extra noises weren’t pervasive, but they weren’t rarities either. A tremendously charismatic figure on the stage, she didn’t seem fazed and played with enormous confidence.

Confidence so enormous, in fact, that it hindered her performance. The concerto seemed smothered in flair: greasy portamento made many of her shifts more prominent than the notes on either end. Her rubato in the first movement was excessive, and often seemed at odds with Dvorak’s lines and her own phrasings. Honeck somehow managed to stay right with her the whole time, but in the end the rhythm felt more distorted than embellished.

Her tone, a few crunchy chords aside, was mostly full and direct, but slower sections felt disinterested. The opening of the second movement is marked espressivo—Mutter played it without vibrato, and did not make up the lost warmth of tone with her bow.

Back in her element in the finale, she was far crisper than she had been in the first two movements, delivering an appropriately giggling Allegro giocoso. The coda was surprisingly tame, but for the most part her playing here was gutty.

Honeck and the Philharmonic produced a marvelous “New World” symphony after intermission. The interpretation was carefully constructed, but no less free for that. The first movement was vivid, opening with quiet but electric anticipation of the powerful burst of excitement that would follow. Honeck’s balancing was impeccable, allowing each discrete line to be heard within the vibrant mesh.

The Largo did not start quite together, but was played with tender reverence. This movement showcases many members of the orchestra in turn, and Keisuke Ikuma gave a lovely, wistful account of the famous English horn solo. The stretches of chamber playing in the strings were wonderfully intimate, a particularly winning moment coming when the concertmaster Glenn Dicterow and the principal cello Carter Brey exchanged glances and broad smiles.

The Scherzo was, oddly, the only movement that felt overly staid. It could have used more explosiveness at the opening, and more pluck throughout. What it did have was size—Honeck had an excellent feel for the weight of this work throughout. Even when he brought the level down, there was a sense of mass behind it all, with not a spot left thin.

The brass of course did their part in carrying the finale’s first theme with authority, but what gave this movement the required expansiveness was the rich and impassioned string playing. Again, Honeck handled them precisely, calling for full, free bowing to create both grandeur and fury. Avery Fisher Hall is nobody’s pick for the best acoustics in New York, but for one evening Honeck was able to draw from the Philharmonic a fullness of sound that filled every corner of the auditorium.

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