Rank Commercialism Yields to Honeck’s Brilliance

United StatesUnited States Dvořák: Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin), New York Philharmonic, Manfred Honeck (conductor), Avery Fisher Hall, New York, 10.12.13 (DA)

Dvořák: Carnival Overture, Op.92;
Violin Concerto in A Minor, Op.53;
Symphony No.9 in E Minor, Op.95, ‘From the New World’


Is London one of the few cities in which for-one-night-only concerts are the norm? In the United States, such things are very rare when an orchestra is playing in its home hall. Step forward, New York Philharmonic.

What expectations to bring, though? Doubtless the orchestra, conductor, and soloist had had minimal rehearsal time. The whole thing, more to the point, stank of rank commercialism, set up to promote Anne-Sophie Mutter’s heavily-trailed recording of the Dvořák concerto. And how interesting could an all-Dvořák programme of the worn overture-concerto-symphony variety really be?

Every so often something like this comes along and mocks the musical products of that endless ritual of quadruple scheduling. Its success was almost nothing to do with Mutter, the plush genius of her playing in the concerto aside. No, this turned out to be about Manfred Honeck.

Honeck has been a tremendous success in Pennsylvania, where he holds a contract as music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra into the next decade. One can see why. As a former violist with the Wiener Philharmoniker, and therefore having played under Leonard Bernstein and Herbert von Karajan, he knows precisely how to get exactly what he wants from an orchestra. The chief influence, though, is clearly Carlos Kleiber. Compare Honeck to those videos of the greatest of them all, and there’s a similar energy on the podium, a similar precision and efficiency of demands, even a similar toolbox of mannerisms, whether in the way he picks out little details or flashes the orchestra through cadences with a windmill of the left arm, like Pete Townshend with a baton.

Surely he could not draw anything special from the Philharmonic in Dvořák’s final symphony, though? It is, of course, their work, premiered by them almost exactly 120 years ago. Since then, according to the Philharmonic’s archives, it has received over 260 complete performances, with another 30 or so hearings of single movements. Not a bit of it. Honeck woke them, almost getting them to sit forwards in their seats as if they were a European orchestra, drawing a sound of unity and balance and edge, deploying it at viscerally brave speeds to fulfill a genuine interpretive vision. This was not symphony as routine: it was symphony as event.

Dvořák’s work expresses the novelty of America, as seen through Czech eyes, but never quite lets go of home. It’s a difficult balance to strike, but Honeck did it, and more. He opened with a tone drenched in a mysterious Heimweh, quickly snapped out of with brutal chords. And then suddenly you realized you were in the hands of a true conductor. Amazingly he induced this most overworked of orchestras to seem eager, to play with full bows, to play the full length of notes (this seems like it should be de rigeur, but almost nobody insists on it). Phrase followed phrase in a vast arc, with electric intensity charging harmonic development. Every detail registered without a fuss being made about it.

One almost forgot the terribly clichéd slow movement was anything of the sort in these hands. Shapely, beautifully balanced, with a stillness barely covering explosive potential, it recalled hay bales and rolling hills rather than Bohemian forests, looked forward to Copland as much as back to Smetana. The scherzo lilted with delightful staccato winds that, alas, this unimpressive set of first violins could not match, but again Honeck drew delicious playing elsewhere. Then the finale, taken for once con fuoco as marked, fulminating to an immense climax before it realized, as it must, that it was a long, long way from home.

In the Gilbert age, the canon has suffered. Honeck, in this devastating performance, reminded us what this orchestra really can do.

Of course, the crowds were out for Anne-Sophie Mutter. Her performance of Dvořák’s violin concerto was rather more tepid, not least as the Philharmonic proved fairly lackadaisical. Mutter remains a violinist of sovereign control, of infinite variation of tones, of tenderness and confidence rolled into one. She is, in some ways, a throwback to an age when musicians seemed to have more of an aura of dignity, of purpose. Despite her undeniable magnetism, this never got off the ground.

Perhaps it was because Honeck had prefaced it with a raucous Carnival overture, febrile and swaggering. Perhaps not. Either way, the symphony will live long in the memory.

David Allen

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