Honeck’s impressive Mahler 1 and Piemontesi’s crisp Mozart with Philharmonia Zurich

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Mozart, Mahler: Francesco Piemontesi (piano), Philharmonia Zurich / Manfred Honeck (conductor). Zurich Opera House, 6.2.2022. (JR)

Manfred Honeck (c) Felix Broede

Mozart – Piano Concerto No.27, K.595

Mahler– Symphony No.1

Swiss pianist Francesco Piemontesi gave his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic last season with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.27, so here was a chance for Zurichers to hear what it was like. He has also recorded the concerto with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Andrew Manze, garnering critical praise.

The concerto was composed in the year Mozart died, although there is some conjecture about this, which I will not go into. Some say one can hear a tone of resignation in the work, Mozart with a premonition of his early death; my ears cannot detect any such mood. The work is, certainly however, one of Mozart’s less festive concertos, using thinner, more modest forces than his previous concertos. There are, for example, no trumpets, no timpani.

The first movement showed off Piemontesi’s crisp articulation, his finesse and his absolute clarity. Honeck and the orchestra accompanied with some effervescent play and plenty of wit; tempi were always judiciously chosen. In the slow movement, I admired Piemontesi’s ability to create beautiful gradations of piano, playing of the utmost delicacy; and he never lagged. Observing the tradition of improvisation, Piemontesi added his own ornamentation to good effect. The final Allegro was refreshingly jaunty, Piemontesi always looking confident and comfortable. Having the piano placed virtually in the middle of the stalls of the opera house added to immediacy and intimacy and the performance was well received, with loud cheers for the young Swiss pianist – possibly though from a travelling delegation from Ticino.

Conductor Manfred Honeck’s credentials include a stint as a violist with the Vienna Philharmonic; this was unquestionably a persuasive Mahler First, a performance with character, employing number of convincing ideas. (My colleague Michael Cookson reviewed Honeck’s 2008 recording with the Pittsburgh Symphony and gave it highest praise, adding that Honeck was on course to be a great Mahlerian. To be fair, there is also a review by Gavin Dixon on the same MusicWeb International website that offers a less favourable review.)

Whilst one cannot compare the Pittsburghers with Zurich’s opera house orchestra, after this performance in Zurich, I can only confirm Michael’s view, namely that Honeck is a worthy Mahlerian. Honeck comes from the very heart of the Viennese tradition and claims that he has tried to emphasise the music’s debt to Austro-Bohemian folk music, and to bring out and even exaggerate the work’s brilliant orchestral colours. That was what he did in this performance; the first movement wakens naturally, rising to a deafening climax with whooping horns before the rumbustious coda. The scherzo, after its vigorous opening from the cello section, was heavily accented; Honeck literally waltzed through the trio.

Gait was measured perfectly in the ‘Frère Jacques’ movement, with perfect intonation from principal double bass Viorel Alexandru. Once again, the Viennese sway was palpable.

And, with a deafening crash, on to the thrilling finale with its huge dynamic range. Woodwind were allowed a rustic edge, Bernhard Heinrichs (oboe) and visiting Dutch flautist Ingrid Geerlings (flute) making a very fine impression. The whole orchestra clearly enjoyed the Mahlerian soundworld, led by Hanna Weinmeister, a most accomplished concertmaster. The concluding chorale, with all eight horns standing and blazing, brought the house down – as it always does.

I will be able to compare and contrast later this week, as my next concert is another Mahler’s First with Jaap van Zweden and the Tonhalle Orchestra – so watch this space.

John Rhodes

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