Sporadic Sparks from Honeck in Tchaikovsky

United StatesUnited States Martinsson, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky: Lars Vogt (piano), Cleveland Orchestra, Manfred Honeck (conductor) Severance Hall, Cleveland, 26.5.2013 (MSJ)

Martinsson: Open Mind
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 in E minor

Did Tchaikovsky write what he meant and mean what he wrote? It’s a good question, one that comes roaring to mind after the Cleveland Orchestra’s closing concert of the season under debut guest conductor Manfred Honeck.

Unlike Mahler, Tchaikovsky’s scores aren’t peppered with endless performance instructions detailing minute changes of tempo and inflection. In the immediate decades after Tchaikovsky’s death, the performance traditions which built up highly exaggerated the scores, sharpening the contrasts to almost operatic levels of drama. The strong reaction which developed in the mid-twentieth century was to take Tchaikovsky more at his word, playing his works plainly and strongly, more or less as written. Conductors such as Dorati and Maazel made this approach to the great Russian composer nearly compulsory. As a result, recent decades have seen flocks of less authoritative conductors following Dorati and Maazel’s lead, although many lack the drive and intensity to make the “no-frills” method work.

Whether it is willfully backtracking or simply discovered anew, Manfred Honeck’s road to Tchaikovsky is a throwback to the older tradition. Having heard the later tradition once previously here in Cleveland (David Zinman, 2001), I found Honeck’s theatricality was engaging, to a degree, certainly a step up from Zinman’s autopilot. But problems emerged in the long run.

Honeck started the first movement slowly but made a crisp contrast with the arrival of the main theme, paced urgently. Each tempo change that came thereafter was extreme: the fasts were very fast, and the slows were quite slow. Did the composer really expect performers to take liberties with his instructions? In the first movement, most of these changes are marked in Tchaikovsky’s score with moderate qualifiers such as “un pochettino più mosso” (“a tiny bit faster”), which suggests to me that the composer was hinting not to overdo it. Honeck hit some very fast stretches indeed, whipping up the excitement and throwing the orchestra a few wild cards. The Clevelanders were more than equal to the challenge, maintaining vivid articulation even at breathtaking tempos. It was good theatre, but arguably not good Tchaikovsky.

The slow movement is marked “Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza,” suggesting some push and pull of tempo is fine within the context of a song-like pace. Honeck instead went with a dirge-like tempo, not at all fitting with what I see as the romantic nature of this, one of the greatest slow movements in the literature. Instead, Honeck’s see-sawing back and forth between extremes broke the flow of the music, causing it to break down fitfully. The orchestra seemed to perk up intermittently when Honeck threw them curves, then go neutral when the extremes abated.

The third movement waltz and the fourth movement finale were considerably better, simply because the conductor exaggerated them less. This is not to say that he went on autopilot like so many of his colleagues. Rather, he became “in the moment”—inside the music instead of imposing an interpretation from outside. Where the first two movements fitfully fired when the orchestra was engaged, more sustained sparks began to fly in the last two movements. Even though Honeck’s tempos were more conventional here, there was more of a sense of the orchestra finally believing in what the conductor was giving them. The finale ended in a blaze of glory that brought the crowd to its feet.

Guest pianist Lars Vogt brought a vigorous attack to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, perhaps trying to boost the work up to the major-league of the composer’s finest C-minor works. But despite the fact that the Third is in Beethoven’s favorite key, I don’t find the work to be a heaven-stormer. In fact, no one has ever been able to convince me that the first movement is anything more than Beethoven strutting, showing off his own abilities as pianist, to no profound effect. But Vogt’s vigor worked well enough for this virtuoso show. The second and third movements strike me as much better music: the former thoughtful and deep, the latter mischievous and charming. Vogt settled into the slow movement effectively, giving it space to unfold. If he was borderline coy in the finale, it was nonetheless great fun. Honeck’s shaping of the orchestra’s contribution was of a piece with the pianist’s deft vigor.

For the concert opener, Honeck brought Swedish composer Rolf Martinsson’s Open Mind, which Honeck premiered in 2005. I very much liked the piece, a study in harmonic instability with an almost cinematic deployment of massive blocks of chords in the brass rising from and falling back into a sea of scurrying strings. While no program is given, nor needed, Honeck refined the storytelling aspects of the score, building its climaxes and letting them ebb in a way that gave it a real sense of going places—all very welcome.

All in all, a concert with only sporadic sparks, but enough to convince me that Honeck has some real substance beneath his flashy technique. If he nurtures that rare ability to connect with music and musicians, and decides to chuck the grandstanding, he could become a major conductor. I would love to hear him return to Cleveland with some Mahler in hand.

Mark Sebastian Jordan