Honeck, Pittsburgh Symphony offer mixed Mahler in an episodic Fifth

Mon May 20, 2019 at 11:22 am
 Manfred Honeck conducted the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Sunday at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Petra Hajská

Manfred Honeck conducted the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Sunday at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Petra Hajská

Conductor Manfred Honeck has earned a reputation for rightness. His approach to the classical and romantic repertoire is consistently sound and, more than that, the music comes off as sounding like it was meant to be. His interpretations often have a naturalness and sense of balance, precision, beauty, and meaning that are deeply satisfying.

And so Sunday’s concert from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, with their music director conducting, was that much more confounding. Why was this performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 so full of bad decisions?

The concert, presented in David Geffen Hall and the last of the season in Lincoln Center’s Great Performers, series, opened with Till Fellner joining the orchestra for Beethoven’sPiano Concerto No. 5, the noble “Emperor.”

In Beethoven, Fellner is like Honeck—his playing is lucid, sane, and shows great understanding of the composer’s form, in particular how he uses harmonic rhythm. These virtues were for the most part on display in the concerto performance, but there was some puzzlement as well.

The opening chord from the orchestra was as bright and lively as can be, and in the concerto the orchestra played with a glowing warmth and vital spirit, a real pleasure to hear. Fellner matched this quality with his own touch, energetic and precise, light but not lightweight. He used judicious rubato, letting Beethoven’s plan of tension and release speak for itself.

Fellner played the minor key second theme with a nice spring to the rhythms. This combination of Beethoven’s substance coming through Fellner’s style promised much. But that promise was interrupted by Fellner using too much sustaining pedal for the series of falling and rising chords, after which a lot of energy fell out of the middle of the long first movement.

Fellner gathered everything back together with the reprise of the minor key theme, for which his playing was again marvelous. The intermezzo-like middle movement was at the precipice of grinding to a halt near its finish, but the segue into the spry and frothy final movement showed Fellner extending the tension for as long as it would hold. The rhythms, so key here, were exceptional from pianist and orchestra.

Musical and emotional tension and release were the overriding problems with the Mahler performance. On the one hand, the anger in Part One (the first two-thirds of the symphony can be heard as Mahler wrestling with the stages of grief) was terrifically biting and savage. On the other, the alternating sorrow in the funeral march stretches was mannered, full of pathos rather than natural weight, and slow enough that had it been an actual funeral procession the marchers would have difficulty maintaining their balance from step to step.

The effect was episodic, exacerbated by Honeck taking a long pause between the first and second movements. This went directly against the form of the symphony—essentially three parts in five movements. It also undercut Honeck’s own conducting—he put a vivid highlight around the last note of section one, emphasizing that it was also the springboard for section two which couldn’t wait. But it did.

The episodic feel is a bad one for Mahler, whose music, especially from the Fifth Symphony on, is always in the process of becoming and developing. There are important statements, but everything else is constant transition or variation. He doesn’t work in blocks, and this was a blocky conception.

That there were excellent stretches added to the frustration. The slow cello music in Part Two was gorgeous and affecting, and the false climax had an ideal tempered strength. The dominating horn solo in the scherzo was brilliantly played by principal William Caballero; Honeck had him stand while playing, which made it more expressively penetrating. Micah Wilkinson’s opening trumpet solo was superb, with an ideal Mahlerian mix of determination and anxiety.

The Adagietto was far too slow at around 11 minutes and too bathetic. Honeck here did segue into the finale. That last movement was so fine, with explosive energy at the close, that one regretted the quality of much of what had just transpired.

The orchestral sound was solid without having the last measure of Mahlerian depth and quality. Woodwinds were colorful but without that bit of extra sunshine or vinegar. The violins were under-powered throughout, especially in contrast with the rest of the strings and the low brass. The entire brass section was scintillating.

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