in: Reviews

February 21, 2014

Un-honeyed Eloquence at BSO

by

Anne-Sophie Mutter (Stu Rosener photo)

Anne-Sophie Mutter (Stu Rosener photo)

This week’s Boston Symphony Orchestra program yokes together Anne-Sophie Mutter, a superstar of decades long standing, and Manfred Honeck, the music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra since 2008. The first half of the program belonged to Mutter, who has been championing Dvořák’s violin concerto, coupling it with the same composer’s Romance for violin and orchestra; Honeck used the second half to tackle Beethoven’s Eroica. Lee Eiseman’s intriguing interview with Honeck can be read here.

Dvořák’s violin concerto is multiply, belated–composed in mid-1879; it was revised and re-revised, premiering a full four years later. Joseph Joachim, who inspired and encouraged its composition, never performed it. It didn’t make it to Boston until 1900, and according to the program notes from last night’s concert, the last time it was performed as part of the BSO subscription series was 15 years ago. The rarity of performances is a shame. Architecturally eccentric, it takes some acquaintance to make sense of it. Especially in the first movement, Dvořák anticipates structural innovations that typically present themselves when listening to music of our own time, hinting at but not committing to sonata form, forcing the listener to pay attention moment to moment to discern the bones that support the structure. It is emotionally intense and mercurial, never wallowing in either beauty or bathos, and occasionally startling the listener with sudden outbursts. It is also very, very hard to play.

This makes it an ideal vehicle for Anne-Sophie Mutter, whose flinty, intelligent performance emphasized the modern in a composer who commonly is thought of as rustic and folksy. She and Honeck released a recording of this piece with the Berlin Philharmonic in 2013, and their long mutual familiarity with it was obvious in the first movement’s constantly evolving dialogue. The music changes direction rapidly, melodic statements giving way to stormy passages of cadenza-like material, then dissolving into motivic fragments that gradually re-coalesce. In Mutter’s hands, this became a conversation that was both eloquent and turbulent, that gave a clear sense of direction while keeping the ultimate destination uncertain. This was thoughtful playing that did not try to ingratiate itself—I have never heard portamenti that were so devoid of schmaltz, yet were absolutely heartfelt. The second movement opens with a quiet and aching melody, but the listener hoping for a sweet moment of respite is soon disappointed—Mutter finds an emotional desperation in the music below its surface that undercuts its surface beauty. She possesses a varied tonal palette, and has a whole range of timbres that contain a just a touch of acid. Carefully deployed, the music never even threatened to curdle into mere prettiness; this movement was a sad song sung by someone far too aware to slip into a thoughtless nostalgia. There was an especially striking moment, where the melody appears pianissimo: playing with a wiry tone just slightly out-of-tune, she evoked a hurdy-gurdy, and we dropped into the same desolate landscape as Schubert’s “Der Leiermann” from Winterreise, or of a 20th-century existentialist play. The final movement, a rondo-like juxtaposition of two Czech dances (a furiant and a dumka), was brilliant and virtuosic, both in composition and execution. There is a fierce joy in this music; the dancing is muscular and demanding, the rhythms pounding, and the final bars consist of four major chords in rapid succession, a quick set of bracing slaps to the face. Mutter played with utter technical mastery and furious concentration. Honeck and the symphony were sympathetic accompanists throughout, especially in the first movement, where a sense of interdependent conversation is crucial. Although the piece that has a reputation for being over-orchestrated, Mutter was never in danger of being covered, though at times there was an uncertain balance between the winds and the strings. Mutter was granted an almost immediate standing ovation from the sold-out audience, many of whom were certainly there just to see her.

While Mutter is many things—strong, intelligent, passionate—I don’t know that I usually think of her as either vulnerable or naive, two qualities that may be necessary to make Dvořák’s Romance for violin and orchestra a complete success. A recycled movement of a string quartet, this was the evening’s opening piece and it never felt comfortable or settled. There were some rhythmic and pitch disagreements in the orchestra, and while you never doubted the sincerity of the violin, neither were you beguiled by it. The piece is pleasant but slight, and one’s memory of it was fairly obliterated by the overwhelming performance of the concerto which followed.

In Honeck’s interview, he speaks of the shock which Beethoven’s third symphony induced in its original hearers, and of his desire to discover that shock in performance—this as opposed to the smooth and beautiful heroism Karajan might have sought. In the event, one could certainly hear how Honeck crafts the sound to make it new to our ears. In the first movement, for example, the texture was made spiky by playing with additional detachment, letting much more space in between sharply articulated notes. Dynamics would suddenly rise and subside, subtly italicizing phrases. The tempo was the “allegro con brio” Beethoven asks for, but not notably fast. A famous dissonant moment discussed in the interview did have a peculiar, almost glassy timbral quality I have not heard before. But it is fair to say that Honeck’s reading this evening was not focused on the first movement, which was played without exposition repeat. It had a surprising lightness to it, and seemed to end a bit too soon.

The second movement was Honeck’s showcase. This was an operatic reading of the funeral march, emotionally acute and pointed. The orchestra played beautifully, with a wide range of hues, which appeared in blocks and slabs, like a color field painting. The major key interlude in the middle of the movement was sunny and ameliorative, a clear look forward to the complex happiness of the first two movements of the Pastorale. The episode at the end of the second movement which Honeck describes in his interview was weird and uncanny, imbued with a touch of Mahlerian grotesquerie; and the fate motive he is so excited about in the third horn has never been so prominent. It fairly blared.

Manfred Honeck (Stu Roser photo)

Manfred Honeck (Stu Roser photo)

The following scherzo was palate-cleansing. It ticked along quickly and satisfyingly, a high-energy jest in the wake of the weighty adagio. The finale started in a similar light vein; the statement of the melody was quite fast (“allegro molto” for sure), and very little time was spent dwelling on the fermatas at the end of each phrase. By the time the flute has its famous solo, the speed was bordering on breakneck. But Honeck slowly and deftly reintroduced heft and drama as the music progressed, so that it landed with full force and brilliance as it came to an end. This movement is one of the most frustrating in Beethoven, a weirdly formalist structure built on a halting and skeletal theme; on this evening, it had an unexpectedly Haydnesque quality at its start, but an undeniably Beethovenian finish.

On the podium Honeck is a fascinating combination of lithe movement from the legs and square, almost geometric gestures in the upper body. His attention constantly darts around the orchestra. He rarely draws attention to himself, though he is not above gathering himself up and then exploding outward to mark a climax or the end of the movement. This same sense of considered dynamism was evident throughout the Eroica, but all of his interesting touches haven’t quite set up into a coherent whole. Perhaps this is due to Honeck’s ideas needing more time to mature, or the fact that he and the orchestra have worked together only once before, in 2005. It may take another return visit to settle the issue; certainly there’s enough interesting music-making here to make it worthwhile.

Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He currently resides in Boston after spending the last 15 years in Eastport, Maine.

14 Comments

  1. Thank you, Mr. Schuth, for this perceptive and illuminating review. I was at the Thursday concert, and I agree with virtually all of your assessment.
    Some further thoughts. The beautiful effects achieved by splitting the violins were especially notable in the 2nd and 4th movements of the Beethoven. How can (especially in the fugal sections)the structural elements of the work – and the soundstage Beethoven orchestrated for – work if the violins are all massed in once section on the left? (Interesting that with the smaller Dvorak orchestra Honeck did NOT split the violins, but did so in the Eroica.)
    Also, it seems to me that for a major piece like the Eroica, there should be SOME principals (or even assistant principals, if that is the correct term)in the orchestra! It seemed as though all the string principals were missing — at least many were. Was this true of the other sections as well? I found that odd. A somewhat related observation: My wife and I have been subscribers for 15 years, and I attend most of the concerts that I don’t have subscription seats for as well, yet at almost every concert I seem to see violinists that I have never seen before. (Last night two or three!)Maybe I’m imagining it, but my friend, attending the concert with me last night, said the same thing (and he’s been subscribing for well over 25 years.) Curious, but perhaps I’m just not paying attention.
    One final thought. Has anyone else noticed that the program notes in the past season or two seem to have moved away from analysis/synopsis of a work and now concern themselves more with anecdote? Mr. Mandel is such a brilliant analyst and lecturer (and I have often sat enthralled by his pre-concert talks and entranced by his notes) that I’m sorry to see his notes not dealing more with the musical structure of the works on the program. For instance, here is the complete discussion of the second and third movements of the Eroica: “The funeral march with its integral use of silence and sound, and the energetic third-movement scherzo – the first symphonic “scherzo” actually to be so named – need no further comment.” No?? Some may be quite familiar with the Eroica, but there are many people who aren’t and I think a chance to fully explain the work in the writer’s usual incisive and informative, yet entertaining, fashion was lost here. This change in focus has seemed to me to be the case with program notes by others this season as well. Just my thoughts.

    Comment by edente — February 21, 2014 at 11:00 pm

  2. Edente’s comments are astute regarding the clarity achieved by splitting the violins; in fact on Friday it appeared to us that they were split also in the Dvorak. Honeck’s tempos reflected his comments in the interview: The Eroica did dance, the tempos were sprightly, upon reflection, right on the mark. One effect was to make the poco andante at measure 350 in the finale seem overly stately, but the movement does start at half-note = 108, and drops to eighth-note = 76, a factor of almost three, which sounds like what we heard — we’ll have to wait for the replay to be certain. Given Honeck’s concern with authenticity, it was indeed a disappointment that he skipped the first-movement repeat.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — February 22, 2014 at 9:50 am

  3. Whoa, what a clear Eroica take! Light, light, maybe too light?, but so clearly and lightly touched. (I really did not want to have to study another new set besides Zinman, Rattle, Gardner, all those probing views, but I do want to hear Honeck further.) Some moments (II) sounded to me a little insufficiently noble and powerful, inadequately biting in those big strides, this over the air, and IV did not hang together enough to my ear in either power or ensemble/harmonic argument. It also ended with a somewhat wan thud cadence. Still, who woulda thunk it possible for anyone’s new Eroica x-rays to reveal so very much? Wow.

    It affected other reviewers enough that I got one email during broadcast and then an excited phone call right afterward. A first. The BSO sounded as outstanding as ever, those woodwinds above all.

    Mutter sounded vulgar (gross) and a touch flat over the air.

    Comment by David Moran — February 22, 2014 at 10:44 pm

  4. Honeck’s Eroica was really something to roll over for. There were 1,001 original details of balance, articulation, dynamics, color and phrasing that made us take note that something very special was happening. The orchestra seemed completely invested- strings adopting a classical style I had never heard from them before- winds coloring as in no other Eroica I have heard. Please bring this guy back!

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — February 22, 2014 at 11:23 pm

  5. Perhaps the Thursday concert was much better for Mutter than Saturday, but the latter was not an impressive outing for her. The Romance was again pretty but uninteresting, while the concerto had numerous large technical errors, ranging from octave passages that were badly out of tune within the octaves and from pair to pair, a couple of missed accidentals on sole entrances, and rapid runs at the end of the third movement that were completely out of synch with the orchestra and were incredibly imprecise and inaccurate, to the point where it appeared she had lost her place and was simply throwing off random notes to reach the final pitch at the bottom of the run. She also had an odd affectation of pausing before the destination note in several passages, either by stretching the penultimate note way beyond any semblance of tempo to outright breaks before attacking the main note. Her triple stops were so aggressive that they sounded coarse and unmusical, and the harshness made their pitch very hard to discern. All in all, it was really quite an uncharacteristic performance for her or for anyone of her caliber.

    Comment by Frank Graves — February 22, 2014 at 11:45 pm

  6. Lee — Too bad they didn’t have Maestro Honeck in the mix for Music Director to succeed Maestro Levine.

    To amplify on edente’s point about the missing players, most of the horners took the night off, to be replaced by newcomers. It is strange, but then again they are rarely all on stage at once.

    And I might add that not one of the trombonists showed up! And management didn’t even get freelancers to fill in for them. ;)

    Comment by Joe Whipple — February 23, 2014 at 3:18 am

  7. I started to CRY, realizing there are two worlds now.

    Mutter’s Dvorak VC is probably the most important music event here this season. She really can play ‘music’.

    The performance is almost exactly the same as her CD. I don’t know if we can say she has been championing Dvořák’s violin concerto, because she came to record this work very late, after recording other major VCs twice (but the performance is on top of everybody else). In recent years, she tours with the work that has been recently recorded. Perhaps that is her managing company’s marketing idea. Karajan’s opera recording releasing plan actually makes better sense and it serves music. As long as Mutter does not sacrifice music for marketing, I am fine with that.

    The second half is so insignificant. I knew it before entering the hall. Lee and others seemed to be over-excited by the interview. However, if you listen with your ear and heart, Honeck’s Nr.3 is very very awful, no matter whatever story he could tell.

    Comment by Thorsten — February 23, 2014 at 7:57 pm

  8. Honeck gets a good, and somewhat uncharacteristic sound from the BSO. The Dvorak breathed very well, and was much more transparent than it could be. String sections were playing as sections, but independently of each other. Much like chamber music. If Nelsons seems to want to install a Berlin Phil sound, this was more VPO– well-behaved VPO, that is.

    The Beethoven was probably the single best live performance of it that I’ve heard. This was the first performance of the first movement I’ve heard that made it sound like a waltz, while making that meaningful. Sort of an early-morning, confident version of Fantastique’s 2nd-movement. Vigor, social confidence, technical skill– a portrait of a hero in real life that didn’t try to sound bigger than it was.

    There were a few small conducting lapses that bothered me, one technical, one musical. In the 1st movement development, the tempo sagged a bit and no amount of Honeck’s pushing the second beat ahead seemed to help. It wasn’t until he gave one-in-a-bar gestures to the horns that everyone seemed to realize that the pace needed goosing up.

    The 2nd movement was the only one that really didn’t have to do with Beethoven’s tempo markings, except maybe a bit toward the end. This was a shame, as it had great variety of expression and made a lot more sense than most conductors’. If one were to link his tempo to the opening of Mahler 5, it was very much in Barbirolli country– not as idiomatic as it might have been.

    It will be interesting to see what else he gets up to.

    Comment by Camilli — February 23, 2014 at 8:49 pm

  9. I was there last night. I thought the performance of the Eroica was very, very good, especially the second movement. The first movement was indeed too short, but this was because of the missing repeat (a bad habit acquired from Karajan ?), not because of excessive swiftness or lightness. It was both swift and nimble, which is to say both allegro and con brio, which is greatly preferable to the ponderous weight that used to be commonplace. It is useful to recall that the Bonaparte that was the original inspiration for this work was the gallant young revolutionary general, the daring and dashing hero of the Bridge at Arcole, the victor of Marengo and the Pyramids, rather than the flawed aspiring world-conqueror. Thus the first movement should epitomize heroic adventure, not heroic tragedy.

    The Funeral March celebrates a Fallen Hero with great pathos, but it is tragic only in the sense that its hero has made the choice of Achilles, to prefer a short, glorious life to a long peaceable one. This is viewed as a moral choice, and a joyful one. “In all the great tragedies, tragedy is a joy to the man who dies,” according to Yeats. This is a nineteenth-century romantic view of tragedy which does not stand up to comparison to actual examples, unless one is willing to exclude Macbeth, Oedipus Tyrannus, and the Oresteia from the list of great tragedies. It is a moral conception of tragedy which has no room for irony. This explains why the nineteenth century produced great symphonies but not great tragedies.

    The review refers to the major-key interlude as “sunny and ameliorative”, but it is not just a respite but a necessary preparation, to give us a glimpse of sun that will lurk later in our memory. In the grand fugal episode that is the climax of the movement, and even of the work, Beethoven creates the pure amalgam of despair and joy that we call grandeur, every measure moving towards both a high exalted destiny and a necessary doom. To achieve this in the context of a funeral march there must be some recollection of joy lingering in the air.

    Honeck controlled the forward motion of the second movement extremely well, maintaining the illusion of a constant, unhurried, untarrying tread, letting the various episodes grow out of it naturally without upsetting the pace.

    All in all a wonderful and memorable performance. However I must say that I, like Joe Whipple, am shocked and appalled at the no-show by the trombonists. Slackers.

    Comment by SamW — February 23, 2014 at 8:51 pm

  10. Resting up for Salome, no doubt.

    Comment by Camilli — February 23, 2014 at 11:27 pm

  11. There are no trombone parts in the “Eroica.”

    Comment by Richard Buell — February 24, 2014 at 1:10 am

  12. My dismay only grows. That Beethoven fellow was apparently also a slacker. How dare he deprive us of our rightful portion of trombones ?

    Comment by SamW — February 24, 2014 at 7:59 am

  13. Beethoven could have inspired Ives if he had the trombones play “Nearer, My God, to Thee” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” during the funeral march — perhaps even in counterpoint. And adding “Dies Iræ” might also have inspired Rachmaninoff.

    Missed opportunities.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — February 25, 2014 at 3:10 am

  14. Seriously, though, I was very pleased with the “Eroica” in the Hall on Thursday evening, and even more so hearing it a second time over the radio. I thought Maestro Honeck’s tempi worked quite well, even if there were a couple of moments where the woodwinds seemed to be pressed to keep up.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — February 25, 2014 at 3:16 am

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