in: Reviews

July 27, 2014

Memorable Mahler 2 from Honeck, BSO

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This morning, Lenox is pounded by torrential rain, the sky having darkened fast, the clouds conspired, the pines bowed and drooping under the weight of water; thunder volleys, lightning leave no unwooded corner unexposed, and soggied folk sprint for shelter. But nothing of this nature overshadowed last night’s luminous Mahler 2nd! Manfred Honeck (once more substituting for Dohnányi) painted a vast, wild canvas with bold, masterful strokes; most satisfying of all was his comprehending native knowledge of the geography of this monumental work; every curve of the score was meticulously traced, but yet more impressive were his projection of Romantic scale, and mature, organic judgment in pacing. In a piece that, less tactfully rendered, can create a sea-swell sensation of peak and trough every phrase, thereby exhausting an audience with too-ready histrionics, Honeck crafted only two points of absolutely devastating climax in the whole symphony. Unless in the thrall of this music in live performance, we tend to forget that Mahler is such a sublime naturalist, failing to see the moments of unaffected beauty in the storm of his conspicuous expressionist turbulence. Honeck adjudged this seamless organic piece with the atmosphere and surroundings; the Berkshires chimed with Steinbach, just as this morning’s storm is redolent of last night’s symphonic bass rumblings.

Mustering the enormous forces required by this symphony created an impressive effect in the Koussevitzky Music Shed, and the amassed BSO and Tanglewood Festival Chorus looking splendid. The musicians’ ritualistic filings, sittings and relocations evoked deep ceremony. In the opening Todenfeier, the precision and virility of the drum and bass playing were impressive; both were certainly in contention for Man of the Match. Honeck’s decisive and weighty direction elicited rustic breadth, intensity and vigor from opening De profundis, which was arresting and unnerving on a visceral level. He trod the line between tight orchestral discipline and a deep, earthy breadth—the audience seemed physically gripped. Just as the score is rhythmic and evocative of vital physicality, so was Honeck’s approach. Just as in this movement Mahler unfurls his full symphonic colors, Honeck directed with scope and dexterity. The opening unisons were searingly, precisely tuned−so exactly rendered that we knew we could expect an exhilarating and keenly intelligent reading. Even in the moments concerned with death, stasis and finality, life was ever present, evoking Mahler feigning death on his bier of floral accolades. Strong pathos and nostalgia were conveyed keenly and sweetly by the string passages fashioned with lovely, fluent rubato. Honeck had only to glance at the firsts (on an inverted pedal) to bring them out of the texture with affecting expression. The flute playing (while amongst the loudest I’ve ever heard in later movements) joined the other winds in a refined, naturalistic palette—bird-like and nostalgic. The strings’ portamenti were lush and vintage and wholly convincing in the movement’s pall of grief and poignancy.

In Mahler’s obligatory 5-minute interval before the second movement, Sarah Connolly made her entrance, and Honeck waited for the audience to hush expectantly. The continuation, redolent of the business and futility of daily life, was palpably worldly and elegant. The Ländler is clearly an influence that Honeck loves, dancing a dexterous and delightful line between modernistic expressivity and the folk origins of the form. Fleshy pizzicato conjured bucolic guitars and zithers, although the elegance and shapeliness deterred simple programmatic responses. Honeck created compelling tension between ennui and vitality, and between futility and art for its own sake. On balance he settled in a feeling of great love of life. Honeck closed the movement (the simplest of cadences) with witty precision of placement.

The third movement was established in a claustrophobic atmosphere of suffocating despair and Romantic fatality. It would be hard to describe how this was achieved, as the notes on the score seem much less disingenuous, indeed rather lovely. The result was one of knowing, tainted loveliness heralded by a terrifyingly executed timpani crash, after which many palpably flinched. Projected col-legno string playing evoked various danses macabres from symphonic repertoire, and the music leapt exasperatedly between key-centers. This smothering sense gave the emergence of reassuring folk-melodies the face of bravery in adversity, foreshadowing the ultimate catharsis of the symphony’s triumphal resolution. Again, the basses played with great commitment, and to great effect. The attacca into the Urlicht brought the rich, dark balm of Conolly’s voice into chiaroscuro relief; the house lights  dramatically brightened to underline the easeful discontinuity with the velvety D-flat. More than comfortable darkness it  implied resolution before its time. Honeck handled the balance of orchestral accompaniment sensitively, and supportively. The sliding ‘sigh’ motif was that most memorable and plaintive of all violin figures.

The finale was an absolute tour-de-force. We could not imagine a better execution of this movement in resolving the crises of the symphony and narrating a convincing victory of the soul. The off-stage brass and percussion were staggeringly precise and majestic to magical antiphonal effect. The Festival Chorus was in great form of vocal quality and precision. Their first entrance was sung seated, maintaining excellently muscular tone, dynamic control,  and supportive pitch for the ethereal first entry of Camilla Tilling. She rose seamlessly from within the chorus to blossom Godwards. As the movement progressed, Tilling joined Conolly at the stage-front—Conolloy’s velvet nap contrasting Tilling’s fine, lustrous silk  with great beauty. Mahler’s 2nd move to an impressive climax as the Festival Chorus tenors and basses made a venerable, manly, well-supported sound which easily matched the expanded brass section; the women of the chorus followed suite. Honeck clearly compelled the chorus’s undivided attention and respect. Anticipating the strokes of the percussionists was like watching the touch paper of a firework being lighted while anticipating the ensuing pyrotechnics.

All told, though the yelling, stamping, cheering ovation was highly deserved, the ringing memory of the BSO and TFC arrayed in full splendor easily overshadowed the clamor.

See related interview here.

Manfred Honeck leads the Boston Symphony with Camilla Tilling and Sarah-Connolly

Manfred Honeck leads the Boston Symphony with Camilla Tilling and Sarah-Connolly (Hilary Scott photo)

John Robinson is director of music at St. Paul’s Parish in Cambridge and his wife Emma Kerry read literature at Oxford.

6 Comments

  1. Brilliant review. It was almost as profound as it would have been to be there.
    After hearing a rehearsal of Honeck conducting the New York Philharmonic last Spring
    I will now hear him at every opportunity. i urge others to do so as well.
    Thus my sister heard him at Tanglewood. He has a new fan.

    Comment by Diane Johnson — July 28, 2014 at 6:19 am

  2. Though this was indeed a fine concert, the best pairing with Maestro Honeck is with his orchestra in Pittsburgh. Must be heard to be believed. The sheer power of that ensemble, combined with Honeck’s dramatic, visceral musical flare, is stunning.

    Comment by Matthew Lewis — July 28, 2014 at 5:56 pm

  3. Looks as though PSO tour version is still in edit, or something, as there appears nothing online about either CD or video.

    Comment by David Moran — July 28, 2014 at 6:51 pm

  4. You can hear Honeck and the Pittsburgh in well documented concerts online from the PSO on Demand

    http://www.wqed.org/fm/ondemand_list.php?id=16

    Comment by Stephen Marcus — August 3, 2014 at 7:41 am

  5. Thanks very much.

    http://wqed.vo.llnwd.net/o15/pgh_symphony_radio/13-14_07_pt1.mp3

    Comment by David Moran — August 3, 2014 at 10:28 am

  6. This only proves that Pittsburgh is a much better ensemble than Boston. The BSO with Honeck comes nowhere near the PSO does.

    Comment by anonymous — August 6, 2014 at 7:39 pm

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