sun 14/07/2024

BBC Proms: Mutter, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Honeck | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Proms: Mutter, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Honeck

BBC Proms: Mutter, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Honeck

Big, bold and brash: a riveting and very American performance of Mahler Five

Manfred Honeck, chief conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, mid-intervention

Earlier this year, conductor Manfred Honeck revealed to me his love of old vinyl: the crackle, the fizz, the lost musical traditions. His performances are marinated in this obsession. The idiosyncrasies of his interpretations hark back to a time when the rules were fewer and the colours brighter. Last night was no different. His Mahler Five steered clear of the sleep-inducing modern fixations with orchestral homogeneity and tastefulness and instead jumped right off the deep end.

It was bracing stuff - not from the word go (these sort of lights need a fair bit of cranking up before they begin to truly blaze) but soon enough. With brass firmly taking hold of the acoustic tiller (and the horn solo still to come), this symphony quickly settled into a bright and brash concerto for brass and orchestra. The second movement saw a maelstrom of Expressionistic colour and Romantic style - sharp marcatos, lush portamenti and foghorn brass - explode into the auditorium.

Of the many interventions in the third movement (including some extraordinary piston-pumping horn calls), the refashioning of the four-note motif into something that could be (and was) danced to was most bold. If some of the string work went a little ragged in the fugue finale, they more than made up for it in the Adagietto, showing what precision they could deliver even at full emotional tilt.

Ann Sophie_Mutter

If this was for some another overly red-blooded performance, at least it stood out. At least Honeck had the daring to make a statement. And mostly it was a riveting statement. Besides, for those who were harbouring doubts that the Pittsburghers could deliver meekness and mildness as successfully as they could flex their muscles, there was the first half to behold.

Rarely, if ever, has an opening so comprehensively shunned the usual bombastic fanfare in favour of such an intense spectral quality. The eternal tripper-upper of great orchestras, the Lohengrin Overture, was impeccably handled, its depths radiantly plumbed by the Pittsburghers. Following it was a much more literal high-wire act, Wolfgang Rihm's violin concerto, Gesungene Zeit (1991-2), being performed last night by the work's original dedicatee, Anne-Sophie Mutter (pictured above).

Floating for much of its half-hour length above the tree line in the land of the harmonic and high up on the E string, this thinly textured yet thickly cogent piece bowled me over when I first heard it in 2004 at the Barbican. Inevitably the high sung line sounded more ethereal, more etiolated, in the Royal Albert Hall. But whereas before, its form and texture had hit me between the eyes, this time it worked on me as might a passing ghost. Its relationship to the orchestra was interesting, especially in the context of the first work. While the stratospheric flights of Lohengrin clearly have a landing point - a place to meet and grace the ground - in Gesungene Zeit, the orchestral ground appears only to emphasise the violin's distance and loneliness.

Encores abounded. Mutter delivered the nearest thing we got to a corporeal presence in the first half: an exquisitely personal, intensely eloquent rendition of the Sarabanda from Bach's Second Partita. Swagger and subtlety filled Honeck's two choices after the Mahler. First, a delightful and delicate Dragonfly Waltz from Josef Strauss was twitched into life. Then we got a romp through the final waltz of the Rosenkavalier Suite. Competitive rivalry will no doubt see the Philadelphia Orchestra (the other Pennsylvanian orchestra) raise their game for their Thursday visit. But the Pittsburghers' generous and characterful performances will take some beating.


They were technically awesome and exciting. They had only two settings = ppppp and fffff. They had the subtlety and depth of X-factor.

Subtlety and depth of X-factor? Oh do behave. What a silly little comment. Great review, you got it it absolutely spot on in my opinion. A riveting statement indeed. That was a world class Orchestra at the top of their game last night.

Thanks for being patronising Brucknerian. It may have been silly but it was my opinion - it may be that you are not the only one who is allowed to share an opinion on this forum?

The truth, methinks, lies somewhere in the middle. Not a great performance, a live and interesting one. You behave too, intemperate Brucknerian, and let others have their (IMO rather smartly expressed) opinions.

By all means. Let's agree to disagree. Cheap and somewhat insulting doesn't equal smart in my book. I Felt it warranted an equal and opposite response. apologies if it appeared intemperate.

And just for completeness, here is the view of Colin Anderson on classical source, commenting on their Tchaikovsky the night before. A view I entirely agree with: ...mannerisms abounded in the Tchaikovsky, which Honeck used for showmanship and orchestral virtuosity; no soul, no depth of feeling. Dynamic tweaks abounded – yes, these strings can play a deadly-hush pianissimo but without it illuminating the music and the clarinettists can raise their bells to make sure we don’t miss their twirls – and became affected early-on and more and more irksome. But what really sunk the performance was the coarse domination of the (technically perfect) brass – spiteful-sounding trumpets (four of them sometimes playing together rather than Tchaikovsky’s requested two), macho trombones and attention-seeking horns – Honeck visually whipping them up and obliterating everything else, perverse when the Pittsburgh strings are glorious (when audible), warm and silky as well as unanimous of phrase, amplitude, colour and deftness. Rarely has this symphony seemed so crude and emotionally empty.

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