Manfred Honeck’s Impressive LSO Debut

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart and Mahler: Dorothea Röschmann (soprano), Ian Bostridge (tenor), London Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 4.10.2012 (MB)

Mozart: Symphony no.41 in C major, KV 551, ‘Jupiter’
Mahler: Des Knaben Wunderhorn

This concert was to have been conducted by Sir Colin Davis; indeed, the prospect of our greatest living Mozartian conducting the Jupiter Symphony was what had brought me to it in the first place. Alas, recovery from a recent illness meant that Davis was unable to return to the podium quite yet. However, whereas his recent eighty-fifth birthday concert had therefore to suffer considerable programme reorganisation, here the only alteration necessary was Sir Colin’s replacement with Manfred Honeck.

The first movement of the Jupiter was faster than Davis would have been likely to have taken it, but not unreasonably so. Perhaps it was a little unsmiling, but the LSO was on excellent form, and neither orchestra nor conductor had any truck with silly reduction of forces or withdrawal of vibrato. Excellent woodwind playing was a particular joy, the magic flute of Gareth Davies in particular. The violins’ silken grace in the second subject was equally impressive. If it remained difficult to warm to Honeck’s direction in this movement, at least he took it seriously, the development section evincing almost Beethovenian strength and purpose, though overall form was undeniably Mozart’s in its balance and symmetry. I had no reservations whatsoever concerning the slow movement, which, for once, actually was a slow movement. Taken at a judicious tempo, it was anything but somnolent; indeed, it received a performance close to ideal. Drama told through maintenance of line and understanding of harmonic rhythm, not via any applied ‘effects’. The LSO’s playing from all sections was beyond reproach, dark not sugary, counterpoint unerringly projected. Honeck and the orchestra combined the intimacy of chamber music with the dramatic urgency of the opera house, and in its dark Romanticism, this performance edged the music to but a stone’s throw from Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. The minuet was almost, but not quite, neo-Classical in its grace; intimations of La clemenza di Tito were not far away at all. Mozart’s harmonic richness and the sheer deliciousness of his melodic inspiration – the woodwind especially delightful here – were justly relished.

In character, the finale rather resembled the first movement. I should have preferred something less fierce, more ‘Austrian’ in a sense (and despite Honeck’s nationality), but great strength of purpose was still to be applauded. Mozart’s structural genius, if not his profoundest humanity, shone through, the LSO on scintillating form. And that coda miracle of quintuple invertible counterpoint told with clarity of dynamism. All that was lacking, at least for me, was a smile. I should add that the LSO clearly loved playing with Honeck, and rightly so, for this was quite a debut, with Mozart surely the cruellest test of all.

The only other occasion on which I have heard Des Knaben Wunderhorn in concert in its entirety was a truly first-rate performance in 2009 from Petra Lang, Hanno Müller-Brachmann, and the Staatskapelle Berlin under Michael Gielen. There, alas, the problem, at least for me, was the companion piece on the programme: the ‘Vienna version’ of Bruckner’s First Symphony, which, try as I might, I continued to find more or less interminable. Honeck’s direction of the LSO seemed to me the equal of Gielen’s in Berlin, which represents praise indeed. Indeed, I do not think I could come up with an adverse criticism of either conductor or orchestra even if I tried. (Well, perhaps I could, but I shall resist the underwhelming temptation.) The pianissimi in particular were breathtaking. From the very first song, ‘Der Schildwache Nachtlied,’ we were treated to wonderfully transparent orchestral colours. The militarism of this and some other songs was equally well judged – take the three LSO trumpets in ‘Revelge’ – and the Wagnerian harmonies of alternate stanzas (Dorothea Röschmann’s) were tellingly conveyed. Rhythms throughout were taut, and whenever necessary, or desirable – for instance in the second and eighth songs – a properly idiomatic Viennese lilt was to be heard – and felt. The orchestra fairly seethed in ‘Das iridische Leben,’ chilling as it must, whilst the dark, ominous tread of ‘Der Tambourgesell’ also displayed an English horn plangency (Christine Pendrill) that might have come from Bach. ‘Lob des hohen Verstandes’ sounded, as it should, like a chamber offshoot of Die Meistersinger, albeit with the irony so signally lacking in Wagner’s own ‘Meisterstück’. Finally came the seemingly endless sadness of ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen,’ searingly presented.

Röschmann began a little tremulously, but soon calmed down, permitting us to enjoy both a truly Romantic richness of voice as well as detailed attention to the words. Ian Bostridge certainly could make some claim to the latter, but I am afraid that, try as I might, I found his contributions very difficult to take. If, in that first song and in ‘Trost im Unglück’, one could convince oneself this was an interesting ‘alternative’ reading, perhaps foretelling the Captain in Wozzeck, ‘Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt’ was so wearyingly presented in inverted commas that it sounded as if the tale were being told by a caricature of Wagner’s Mime. Yes, there was apt bitterness of tone, but the directness, which yet lacked nothing in subtlety, of Müller-Brachmann in Berlin was infinitely preferable, at least to this listener. ‘Lied des Verfolgten im Turm’ again had bitterness, but Bostridge’s delivery tended so strongly toward Sprechgesang as to sound like straightforward caricature. Some, I can imagine, may have found ‘Reveille’ well ‘characterised’, but for me it crossed the boundary from mannerism into outright grotesquerie, more akin to the ravings of a morphine addict than anything Mahler seems to have had in mind. ‘Verlorne müh’!’ offered the ne plus ultra, vocal tone so unpleasant that all one could do was try to concentrate upon the orchestra. There was, of course, much to enjoy from Röschmann, whether the beautiful handling of the melismata in ‘Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht’, or the winning delivery of ‘Rheinlegendchen,’ from which one emerged smiling in true Viennese style, one eye dry, the other moist.

Mark Berry