Honeck, Philharmonic deliver a sublime Beethoven Sixth

Fri Apr 08, 2016 at 2:21 pm
Manfred Honeck conducted the New York Philharmonic Thursday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

Manfred Honeck conducted the New York Philharmonic Thursday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

Manfred Honeck isn’t the flashiest conductor around—an Austrian veteran of relatively reserved demeanor and a master of the Classical-Romantic concert canon, he defies the model of the peppy, young, outside-the-box maestro that is currently in vogue.

His music-making is all the argument he needs, as he showed once again with the New York Philharmonic on Thursday night in a concert that featured a truly extraordinary rendition of a well-ridden warhorse.

Franz von Suppé’s Poet and Peasant Overture might not be the most substantial piece in the concert repertoire, but it made for a strong first impression from Honeck and the Philharmonic. The piece had bright energy and cavalry dash, remaining extraordinarily tight, even amid frequent shifts of tempo. Honeck managed the sound of the orchestra perfectly, drawing out a vibrant, luxurious tone that one seldom encounters in David Geffen Hall. Eileen Moon, in particular, stood out for her wonderfully crooned cello solos.

The Richard Strauss Oboe Concerto, alas, showed less preparation. The piece itself is odd—penned as late as 1945, it is lightly scored and uncomplicated, a stark contrast to the pungent, richly textured works that make up so much of the Straussian oeuvre. The Andante was nicely realized, as Philharmonic principal oboist Liang Wang gave a breathing, lovingly caressed rendition, but the outer movements were not so fortunate, sounding under-rehearsed. Wang hurried through most of the tricky figurations, dropping many notes altogether, and making odd choices of timing. For his part, Honeck focused most of his efforts on keeping the ensemble together, and the accompaniment was somewhat soft as a result.

The failings of the Strauss, though, were more than worth enduring for the sake of Honeck’s rendering of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, which was just about miraculous. Listening to his interpretation develop, one could sense a strong overall plan for the piece, and the execution was flawless. The detail of the opening bars was exquisite, and the phrases precisely shaped as though the conductor had prescribed a specific level for each note. Yet there was nothing stale or mannered about the playing–the progression of the music was completely natural, building gradually to the expansive expressions of joy at the first movement’s peaks.

The indication for the Scene by the Brook, “Andante molto moto,” is a little odd, but Honeck hit it squarely on the nose, taking a deliberate tempo but maintaining a sense of constant activity. The peasant dance of the third movement was a glorious, roaring stomp, treated with rustic roughness, which transitioned brilliantly into the thunderstorm as the dizzy celebration turned suddenly into intense anticipation. The storm itself was a harrowing ordeal, given power from an underlying richness of sound and punctuated by flashes of brilliance in the violins and woodwinds.

That fullness of sound and commitment of playing persisted through to the very end, culminating in a blissful resolution to the Shepherd’s Song. The Philharmonic’s strings have sounded considerably warmer since Frank Huang took over as concertmaster, but in Thursday’s Beethoven they summoned up even more velvet than usual.

Before the announcement of Jaap van Zweden, Honeck was widely thought to be on the shortlist to succeed Alan Gilbert as music director. After a performance like this one, it’s difficult not to imagine what might have been.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at David Geffen Hall. nyphil.org.

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