Anxiety, Doubt and Terror in Honeck’s Bruckner

United StatesUnited States Vivier, Bruckner: New York Philharmonic, Manfred Honeck (conductor), Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 29.3.2014 (DA)

Vivier: Orion
Bruckner: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor (ed. Nowak)

Just a few months after his one-night-only turn upstaging Anne-Sophie Mutter in Dvořák, this last-minute substitute job on behalf of a flu-stricken Gustavo Dudamel again showed Manfred Honeck to be a vastly underrated conductor. Honeck, who is a former member of the Vienna Philharmonic, a pupil of Claudio Abbado, and presently music director in Pittsburgh, has an innate ability that is simply in another league, compared to any other conductor who regularly guests here. He turns the Philharmonic into something they really ought to be anyway: the orchestra of Mahler, Mengelberg, and Walter. Can we keep him?

Honeck kept Dudamel’s program. One doesn’t imagine he is a regular conductor of Canadian composer Claude Vivier’s music (Dudamel apparently is), but the pairing was supposed to be just that, and so it made sense to leave it be. Vivier, who died young in none too salubrious circumstances, was a Stockhausen acolyte heavily influenced by his travels in East Asia. Orion’s links with Bruckner unsurprisingly proved to be more aural than philosophical, both in terms of specific sounds, often heard as if in a bad dream, and developmental temperament. Yet answers in Orion are more difficult even than in Bruckner: what affirmation there is comes in a gruesome, chorale-like section for strings, distorted almost beyond recognition.

The piece opens with a kind of portal back to Bruckner, a gong and a typical tremolo leading to a florid, often jaunty trumpet fanfare that is the material for the entire piece. Motoric ostinati and generous pauses likewise look back, and there’s also a moment that seems to come straight from the opening scene of Das Rheingold. Vivier clearly had a genius for brass writing, wah-wah mutes and all, and the Philharmonic’s section proved more than up to the task of developing that important motif. The rest of the orchestra sounded rather lackadaisical at times, but this was nonetheless a creditable performance of an intriguing work.

The Philharmonic is not often thought of as a Bruckner orchestra, and nor is Avery Fisher a hall conducive to this music. Forget about all that though, because this was an extraordinary performance. Honeck seemed to have broken down the orchestra into its constituent parts, then put them back together again so that each and every line sang and shone through. An almost Furtwänglerian approach to tempo found drama within the music’s development, rather than imposing it arbitrarily, while Honeck’s talent for color and his precision of demands suddenly found the Philharmonic sounding as if they were some mitteleuropäische supergroup.

From the first, ominous tremolo, it was clear that something was at stake: the horns were not quite as confident as they would be if there weren’t, and the cello line was notably jagged. And then the first great eruption, full of the anxiety, doubt, and terror that would characterize the whole symphony. Honeck achieved that rare thing, a combination of tension and release within each clause of Bruckner’s paragraphs, while working out the same thing across entire movements. Staggering tempo control—achieved seemingly through his knees—helped here, but so too did minute attention to levels of vibrato, and an insistence on accuracy and bite of phrasing. There were glimpses of the heavens to be found, but glimpses only. The modernist dissonance that many conductors focus all too relentlessly on was there, to be sure, and importantly so, but Honeck never had to underline it to make his point. By the coda, resolution was unsettled at best, as it ought to have been.

The scherzo was, if anything, even more special. Rarely if ever have I seen the Philharmonic play with such commitment as here. The strings dug in harshly in the service of Honeck’s mechanistic vision of parts of this movement, lilted in his more bucolic moments, and managed to sound both weighty and airy at the same time. The trio whizzed along by comparison, scurrying at times and flirted at others—yes, in Bruckner.

Quite rightly, there was no sense of finality to be found in the finale that isn’t. It was instantly obvious that things would be left unsaid by this Adagio: the strings, although coloured a deep, black ice, simply didn’t have the requisite sense of resolution. Each note mattered, in itself and in the context of others, in a grand plan aimed towards Bruckner’s horrifying, dissonant plea near the end. If this was the unfolding of Grace—and Honeck is a very Catholic man—then Grace was only to be found in disharmony. Perhaps playing standards sagged here, inexcusably, particularly in the first violins. With such strength of vision, it barely mattered, for this was music-making of genuine meaning. Honeck looked shattered by the end, while every member of the Philharmonic sat and applauded him. More please!

David Allen

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