The last-minute substitution of conductor Manfred Honeck for Christoph von Dohnányi (sadly facing a serious illness in his family) made for both the former’s Tanglewood debut and an exciting concert Friday. The average Festival-goer arrives in the Berkshires in a well-oiled vehicle that was more than fit for purpose in a controlled city environment, only to find himself attempting more rugged hills and dales while wondering whether the steering and brakes will suffice; this was very likely how Honeck felt during last night’s performance, and we salute his doughty nerves.
The first half of the concert exploded two musical clichés. The first debunking was of the lazy stereotyping of Beethoven as a one-trick pony of sturm und drang. The presentation of the Prometheus Overture was exaggeratedly elegant, light and refined, like listening to an excellently tight recording with the volume low. It was shapely, nuanced and rightly balletic, and the degree of control conveyed Honek’s considerable experience, and the orchestra’s respect for it. His reading was whimsical and floral, well-judged for the idyllic summer’s eve. His control resulted in some moments of minute precision and detail, whilst allowing space for the players to emote some lovely liquid phrases.
The second myth interrogated was that of Paul Lewis as predominantly a joyously muscular and assertive interpreter of Beethoven. The pairing of Lewis and Mozart K.414 is inspired. Rendered tweely, the piece can be almost nauseating, the musical equivalent of too much tea and cake, lovely but insubstantial; Lewis communicated a broad expressive spectrum, from poised romantic lyricism to silly frippery. He brought cheeky life and wit to this, one of Mozart’s less dramatic conceptions; he created a most elegant sense of space and playfulness in more lyrical passages, but nailed the occasional hints of more speedy, technical writing with exhilarating ease. His liquid gold touch would have delighted any traditional Mozart aficionado, whilst his trademark flashes of color and gesture communicated with winning openness to orchestra and audience. There were occasional infelicities from the oboes, which I should imagine arise from adjustment to open-air playing, and which caused some good-natured mirth amongst the first violins. Honeck’s tempi were lovely; mobile but unhurried, and clearly to Lewis’ liking−Honek and Lewis clearly have an excellent rapport, feinting like a comic double act at the applause, each to direct the audience’s appreciation to the other. Lewis ended the stand-off with a winning grin, and made several returns to the stage to acknowledge the audience’s delight.
Many’s the organist, like myself, who wished that the young Mendelssohn had been at all generous to the instrument with his early works! The Italian Symphony particularly makes my heart yearn, as it is such an incredible offering to the world of sound, further beautified by the composer’s diffidence and compulsive editing. Sometimes, it takes a new setting to remind one of the brilliance of a piece with which one has become unduly comfortable in familiarity. Last night’s performance reminded me of the bolt-from-the-blue brilliance of this symphony’s first movement. Honek set a splendid, romping tempo, a playful challenge to which the orchestra rose; gorgeous oboe and clarinet solos were beautifully projected (not a mean feat in the peculiar acoustic) and sincere, the melody passing from hand to hand with ease and dove-tailed precision. In subsequent movements, the playing was impeccably neat, and conveyed care and excellence, but after the white-hot joy of the first movement, it would have been difficult to sustain compelling energy, particularly in such a relaxed holiday atmosphere. The closeness and control of the playing created clarity to listen for hints of the “more mature” Mendelssohn, Victorian par excellence; there was the occasional moment of saccharin Attwood-esque sentiment in the wind cadences. In the second movement, the orchestration balances any hint at stickiness with a contrastingly sparse and understated soundscape of gothic austerity, a fervently repressed ‘antico’ effect full of imagination, not at all stodgy or ever-so-worthy, a sparseness which the BSO exploited to restrained effect.
The evening concluded with a blisteringly fleet-footed Saltarello during the first measures of which Honek stamped most audibly and imposingly; if that stagecoach was headed downhill, he intended to be at the reins, cracking the whip! The orchestra responded with verve and rhythm, and with impressive dynamic range, particularly at the ultra-piano end, which made for dramatic contrast and a compelling denouement. Having settled onto the podium during Friday’s more neatly athletic and structured repertoire, we are much in anticipation of how he will approach the muddier, long-distance hike of Saturday’s Mahler.