Olympian performance of Mahler in Berlin from Pittsburgh orchestra

GermanyGermany Musikfest Berlin 2011 (2) Wagner; Rihm and Mahler: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck (conductor), Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin), Philharmonie, Berlin, 11.9.2011. (MC)

Richard WagnerAct I Prelude from Lohengrin  (1845/48)
Wolfgang Rihm –  Time Chant (Second) music for violin and orchestra (1991/92)
Gustav MahlerSymphony No.5 (1901/04)

The visiting Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under Manfred Honeck in concert with Anne-Sophie Mutter as soloist formed part of the musikfest berlin 2011 Berlin’s major festival for orchestral music which highlights music by Wolfgang Rihm and commemorates the Liszt and Gustav Mahler anniversaries.

Based in Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra has a long and fine tradition. I fondly recall many excellent recordings made in the 1950s/80s most notably from musical directors William Steinberg, André Previn and Lorin Maazel. Earlier this year in Munich, Germany I attended a concert given by a touring American orchestra who gave a performance so strangely lacklustre it belied their elite status on the international stage. No such holiday mood was encountered here with the Pittsburgh Symphony under their music director Manfred Honeck clearly at the top of their form giving such a wonderful and exciting performance it is now indelibly imprinted in the memory.

Wagner’s Act I Prelude from his romantic opera Lohengrin was just the work to set the juices flowing especially under Honeck’s warm and sensitive direction. One noticed the maestro’s precise instructions bordering on the pedantic yet the sound obtained was as tender as the softest feather down. Honeck wound up the passions to mammoth proportions transporting this listener into a Wagnerian world set on a verdant meadow on the banks of the river Scheldt in 10th century Antwerp. You could hear a pin drop at the close.

Wolfgang Rihm is clearly doing a lot right owing to the number of commissions that he obtains. Composed in 1991/92 in response to a request by Paul Sacher, Rihm’s Time Chant music for violin and orchestra was performed Anne-Sophie Mutter. Time Chant is music that Mutter knows well. It was written for her as the dedicatee of the score; and she recordied it back in 1992 with James Levine at Chicago. On the Philharmonie stage Mutter was surrounded in an arc by fourteen strings with further modest accompaniment ranked behind. Pitched in the highest registers of the instrument Mutter played almost continuously singing out what appears to be tenderness on the surface yet containing an unsettling undercurrent of nervous tension. Throughout I couldn’t fail to be impressed by the intensity and concentration of Mutter’s interpretation as she confidently surmounted the challenges of Rihm’s writing like the true artist she is. After Time Chant a moving touch was Mutter electing to play the J.S. Bach Air on G string in commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy at the Twin Towers of the New York’s World Trade Centre.

Mahler’s Symphony No.5 continues to maintain a firm hold in the concert repertoire and many audience members would have come along especially for this extremely popular score. Galvanised by the success of the Wagner and Rihm scores Honeck blessed Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with considerable generosity and sincerity, demonstrating a special proclivity for late-Romantic music. In response we were treated to expressive playing from the Pittsburgh players imbued with significant character and vigour. The tension was maintained at a high voltage in the Funeral March and the second movement was a remarkably colourful depiction of vivid nature sounds. Honeck was careful not to take the Scherzo too quickly. With the players fashioning a scene of verdant Alpine vistas it felt like I was reading intimate pages from Mahler’s holiday diary. Clearly the musings of a love-struck composer, the light and whirling waltz passage was delightfully done. All eyes were on the horn principal who stood up for his solo passage delivering a vividly focused tone. With the bit between his teeth Honeck directed a climax that was shattering in terms of both excitement and volume.

The interpretation of the justly famous Adagietto, a declaration of love for Alma sounded so intense and emotionally convincing that it would have broken the stoniest of hearts. Looking back to the days of Karajan there have almost certainly been silkier string sounds heard in the Philharmonie, but few as ardently expressive as the lush American strings. It felt like a warming morning sun glistening on dew laden pastures providing growth and renewal. Just crackling along with great excitement ,the Rondo-Finale was buoyant with a captivating sense of optimism. In the final pages the reserves of raw energy that Honeck demanded from the players were of Olympian proportions. Honeck directed his Pittsburgh players in a musical tour de force. This was awe-inspiring playing from a truly magnificent Pittsburgh orchestra. I have not seen an audience applaud so enthusiastically for some time and they were treated to two encores.

Michael Cookson