CARNEGIE HALL | Pittsburgh Teleports Vienna

Tuesday, February 9, 2010 at 8 PM

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, cond. Manfred Honeck
Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage

BRAHMS | Violin Concerto (Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin)
MAHLER | Symphony No. 1
Encore: JOSEF STRAUSS | “Die Libelle”: Polka Mazur, Op. 204

Last night’s Mahler First with Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony was the most seizing account of this work I have ever heard live. One who feels in Mahler a kindred spirit will have felt in Honeck a true compatriot.

A lustrous, concussive force—Pittsburgh is now an orchestra to be reckoned with. The first movement began less than pristinely but the players soon warmed up, cellos pulling with earthy traction—the traction of my dreams!—and the rest of the symphony soon erupting. Amid the sunlit daydreams and acrid ironies there were eddies of utterly Viennese creaminess, straight outta Steel City. (Honeck’s early apprenticeship to Abbado and his history with the Vienna Philharmonic and State Opera would explain this in part but does little to soften the surprise of his impact after just two years at Pittsburgh.) The Frère Jacques theme was more flat than sad, more deflated than mournful—rightly so. The way those lyrical, romantic melodies later wove into the third movement, and barely managed to in the final movement, was always exquisitely perfect. The strings were amazing, the brass were amazing; only the winds needed more nuance and precision. Anne Midgette observed of Honeck’s performance with Pittsburgh last May in DC that this is a conductor who knows what he wants. This was absolutely clear last night. He has a physically involved conducting style that actively molds the orchestra’s sound and shakes it forth. I cannot wait to hear the recent recording they made of this work.

Like voters, music critics can gravitate fatally toward center. Surely only this impulse could explain Anthony Tommasini’s miserly NYT review. [Postscript: For his part, in a rundown of Carnegie Hall’s orchestral showdown this season, Alex Ross admits to having missed the Pittsburgh Symphony entirely. A sad exclusion, as he might otherwise have seen the Pittsburghers make as startling an impact as the Minnesotans he justly lauds—and bristling with precisely the kind of “collective risk-taking” he attests to having sought and too rarely found.]

Anne-Sophie Mutter’s Brahms concerto, opening the concert, achieved an astonishingly beautiful tone, hard-earned through artistic maturity and abiding intimacy with her instrument. No longer the merely fiery, merely flawless virtuoso, von Karajan’s irreproachable protégée. How did she manage to bow forth those finest rivulets of flowing mercury?—so pristine and so scorching at the same time? There is some secret in her bowing….

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