Manfred Honeck press reviews
Honeck drives Pittsburgh Symphony to dramatic interpretations
“Great concerts sometimes have a highlight. Others go from strength to strength, as did Thursday's matinee concert by Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. It began with a remarkable performance of "Death and Transfiguration" by Richard Strauss. The composer was a young man when he imagined the deathbed scene of this tone poem, which proceeds through agitation and sweet dreams of earlier life to a vision of eternity. Honeck began "Death and Transfiguration" at a whisper, not only the gasping strings but also the well-balanced wind chord. That blended sonority, in this case of the wind choir, was a defining characteristic of the performance, as was fervent phrasing. Brass sonorities were smoothly integrated and never swamped the strings.
As excellent as the Strauss was, the concert only got better. […] Honeck's interpretation of Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 was as bold, detailed and imaginative as one hopes a music director's will be. The music is rhythmic and energetic, unless badly done, but Honeck's vitality was exceptional.
The speed of the Scherzo was breathtaking. It is marked Presto, but this was so wonderfully fast that it even looked forward to the Scherzo of the Ninth Symphony. The finale is manic, and was Thursday afternoon, but it was not rushed. Surging crescendi carried everything before them as the music swept to its powerful climax.”
Mark Kanny, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 30 April 2009
“In my experience, even good performances rarely reach full potential. It's a measure of just how difficult it is to make notes on a page truly express the excitement and joy that were present in the pen of the composer. Even the stellar Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and its generally high level of conductors will not muster everything a work has within it.
But it does happen, especially when a maestro is conducting a work for which he has great feeling. That was the case yesterday when Manfred Honeck took to the podium at Heinz Hall. I still can hardly believe the passion displayed in the matinee concert. Yes, the matinee. Half the time my body itself is working at 10 percent at these concerts, fending off post-lunch nods (OK, that's an exaggeration). But not this time. The concert, with Honeck's "old German" seating (violins split across the stage), opened with the subject of life and death in visceral terms: Richard Strauss' "Tod und Verklarung (Death and Transfiguration)."
The Austrian Honeck might as well be Georg Hegel on the podium, so much does he bring out the dialectical struggle of a work. In the tone poem, Honeck brilliantly accentuated the persistence of the disease that will kill the protagonist. Many performances will downplay the horns and brass when the hero reminiscences about his past, but for Honeck the throes of death dominated with a "roughed-up" texture. Abrasive phrases in the winds were pushed forward and then pulled back; whatever section of the orchestra was accompanying main themes threatened to devour them. It was unsettling and, frankly, as it passed I questioned it. […] Surely Honeck's direction offered too much drama even for a conductor who has made dramatizing music his raison d'etre. But when the hero dies and his soul passes on, represented by Strauss' supernal theme laid down so carefully by the brass, I was emotionally spent. The struggle prior created tension in me that unwittingly sought out the release that Strauss and Honeck provided in the final bars.
Drama returned as Honeck threw down the gauntlet for the beginning of his Beethoven symphony cycle with the Seventh…such was the vigor and energy that Honeck called for in every measure, from potent orchestra hits of the introduction to the rousing gallop to the end. Honeck likes to treat themes with more energy when they are in transition from their first statement, as a way of enhancing the tension and no composer obliges more than Beethoven. The first movement found Honeck miming a pulling motion to get even more from the thrusting PSO. […] Spectacularly launched, the famous theme-and-variation movement followed. Never rushing the grace notes, Honeck built the variations layer by layer until an epic sound arrived with the first violins taking the theme. The Scherzo was a bit fast and occasionally the violin sections were not completely together, but a wonderful and soft crafting by the clarinets in the Trio gave us one last bit of breathing room before Honeck turned his baton into a whip and rode the group unrelentingly to the glorious end.”
Andrew Druckenbrod, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 1 May 2009
“At home, Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra face no real competition except among themselves, and the challenges posed by music they play. But touring, particularly to cities with a strong international profile such as the nation's capital, is another matter….Success in this environment creates prestige for the conductor and orchestra, and for Pittsburgh as a place of world-class accomplishment. That's why the local business community strongly supports touring by the orchestra.
The artistic calling card presented by Honeck and the symphony at the Kennedy Center had three distinct dimensions.
The concert Monday night opened with "Death and Transfiguration" by Richard Strauss, an intensely dramatic tone poem featuring the big sounds of late-Romantic orchestration. Honeck's interpretations build upon the ability of the players to handle extremes in the service of expressivity. The opening deathbed scene was extremely quiet, but unlike many conductors who go for really quiet playing, Honeck's performances don't lose dimension - shape in phrasing - that touches the heart. The dream of a glorious afterlife faded poetically to silence.
Next was early classicism, with Alicia Weillerstein the eloquent and virtuosic soloist in Joseph Haydn's Cello Concerto in C major. Virtuosity and songfulness were present in equal measure, with the final Allegro molto very, very fast. The Pittsburgh Symphony was in top form, with the first violins playing with a spirit and refinement reminiscent of Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields.
Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 that completed the program employs the classical orchestra in such an expanded way in sonority and rhythmic power that it is virtually another world from the composer's teacher - Haydn. Honeck and the symphony were uncommonly bold interpreters of this audacious music. It was a physically exciting performance, with fast tempi that did not preclude moments of contrast. All but one of Beethoven's repeats were taken, even the rarely heard one in the first movement. Beethoven changed the tempo marking for the second movement from Andante to Allegretto because even in his lifetime Andante was starting to be taken as a slow tempo. Honeck and the musicians delivered an exquisitely nuanced performance. The Scherzo was stunningly quick, befitting a movement marked Presto. The contrasting sections had breadth without dragging. And the quick tempo for the Scherzo provided the correct contrast with the finale. Some conductors play the finale as fast as possible, but Honeck's tempo relationships let it be unrushed at a fast tempo - Allegro con brio, which is not as fast as Presto. Honeck and the orchestra drove through this manic music with intoxicating energy and tremendous climax. The audience immediately erupted in cheering that far surpassed the ovation for the Haydn concerto. It was a Pittsburgh Symphony performance that will long be remembered”