by James Rosenfield
Photo credit: Hiroyuki Ito, The New York Times
When flu-stricken Gustavo Dudamel had to cancel his set of concerts with the New York Philharmonic last week, the Pittsburgh Symphony's Manfred Honeck came to the rescue. Despite the short notice, Honeck took to the podium at Avery Fisher Hall and conducted a startling rendition of Claude Vivier's Orion, as well as a Bruckner Ninth for the ages.
Kudos to Honeck for sticking with the Vivier, which is not exactly in every conductor's repertoire. What on earth might Claude Vivier—the Canadian Caravaggio of composers—and Anton Bruckner have in common? Plenty, it turns out: Vivier began as a devout Catholic, just like Bruckner, although the latter always remained devout; both had mystical streaks; both worshipped controversial senior composers (Stockhausen and Wagner, respectively); and both composed using a similar bags of tricks.
Orion, in fact, begins in a Brucknerian style, with quiet string tremolos blasted away by brass declamations. Soloistic passages alternate with tutti, and unexpected alternations of fortissimo and pianissimo add to the Brucknerian echoes. The piece becomes truly wild, but never loses its fundamental melodic thrust. Twice a percussionist even shouts "Hey Ho!" (And why not?) One can belabor this too much, but there was clearly a reason why Dudamel chose Orion to accompany the Bruckner Ninth.
Honeck coiled and uncoiled the great first movement of the symphony like a massive spring, filled with all the gestures that drove Bruckner's contemporaries crazy: the stops and starts, the alternations between soft and loud, the insane harmonies and dissonances, the use of everything from whole-tone scales to extreme chromaticism. Honeck was in masterful control here, as he was throughout the entire concert.
Honeck's scherzo unleashed all the devils in hell, the way Furtwängler and Bruno Walter did in their historic recordings. Is the scherzo music for a particularly wild village festival right out of Breughel? To some musicologists it's Bruckner mimicking the early period of industrialization—the thundering, pounding rhythms imitating the increasingly developed machines.
The final movement was not consciously intended to end the symphony—there are too many sketches for a fourth movement to believe that. However, the restropective quotation of passages from earlier symphonies, the prevalence of chorales, the tributes to Wagner, and the soft string figures that act as a dark angelic messenger suggest a valedictory statement.
The Phil's performance was heartbreaking. I have seldom heard the group sound better, and that's saying a lot. The audience, filled with younger patrons (Dudamel's absence caused a massive return of tickets), remained absolutely rapt as Honeck slowly lowered his baton. The applause was thunderous, and standing ovations demanded Honeck's re-entrance again and again—the sign of a great performance.
I had never seen Manfred Honeck in person before, but he proved himself to be a conductor of commanding presence and spellbinding charisma. And as an Austrian, he is a Brucknerian to the manner born.