Bruckner in the sure hands of an expert: Manfred Honeck conducts the Philharmonia at the RFH

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Liszt, Bruckner: Alexandre Kantorow (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Manfred Honeck (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 9.5.2024. (JR)

Manfred Honeck

Liszt – Piano Concerto No.2 S.125
Bruckner – Symphony No.9 WAB 109

I had missed earlier performances given in London by young French pianist Alexandre Kantorow but had received very promising reports. He won the 2024 Gilmore Artist Award, the youngest and first French pianist to receive this accolade. Four years ago, aged only 22, he won the Gold Medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition, also receiving the Grand Prix, previously awarded only three times in the competition’s history. That really says it all. Here is a fine artist, already in huge demand by all the major orchestras. We could judge him in this concert only by a short twenty-minute concerto, Liszt’s second, consummately accompanied by Viennese conductor Manfred Honeck and the Philharmonia Orchestra. It is in one movement with a variety of sections, based on a simple tune. Liszt described it as a concerto symphonique, it is not really a display piece for a virtuoso pianist, nor a satisfying symphonic piece. Nevertheless, Kantorow displayed his prowess, injecting shading and colour wherever possible and muscle where necessary. Finger work was often at lightning speed. Nobody present was in any doubt that they were witnessing the emergence of a great talent, and we look forward to many more performances in meatier works. The audience was captivated by his ravishing encore – sources tell me this may have been a Liszt Petrarch sonnet (correct me please, if you were at the concert, if I have been told wrong).

Bruckner never managed to finish this last Ninth Symphony. Had he done so, I am convinced this splendid work would now eclipse his Seventh, which is so often performed, and his majestic Eighth. It is one of the many great sorrows in classical music that Bruckner never managed to complete it. We are left to wonder what might have been. Thankfully, Manfred Honeck chose the right course; musically – he neither (as Nathalie Stutzmann did in a recent performance with the London Symphony Orchestra) tacked on Bruckner’s Te Deum – Bruckner suggested this on his deathbed as a possibility to his physician and friends – nor appended a final movement composed and put together by musicologists using fragments found in the composer’s effects. The three movements which were fully composed are sublime and magnificent and Honeck – long in charge of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra – is an expert Brucknerian. His 2020 recording of this very symphony earned him Grammy nominations for Best Orchestral Performance.

Honeck opened the symphony in wonderfully mysterious fashion, the orchestra watching his every gesture. Honeck is precise, oozes Viennese charm and elegance and when the music is loud, he does not stint. The brass blazed at every opportunity and they duly thrilled. Trumpets were incisive, trombones dark and threatening. Tempi and dynamics were faultless, orchestral playing across the board was at a level I have not heard from the Philharmonia Orchestra for a while – they were clearly in awe of and admiration for their conductor. I highlight Chris Ridley on timpani, Steffan Morris principal cello and Ben Hulme, principal horn, who all stood out. The strings enjoyed their pizzicato in the opening Scherzo, and the brass were suitably savage when they joined the party. The final meditative Adagio was most moving, with the huge orchestral discordance duly making its mark – is this his moment of death? The final missing movement was then going to be a praise to the Almighty (his Seventh is dedicated to King Ludwig II, his Eighth to the Austrian Emperor, Franz Joseph I, but as Bruckner put it, if he didn’t get to write it, God would only have himself to blame.

After the sublime tender ending, Honeck held his left arm high for what seemed an eternity and nobody moved a muscle. He brought his arm down very slowly and the audience erupted. This will certainly prove a highlight of my musical year.

John Rhodes

1 thought on “Bruckner in the sure hands of an expert: Manfred Honeck conducts the Philharmonia at the RFH”

  1. It has been suggested – including by someone hiding behind a fake email address – how S&H could have been more convincing about the encore: however, 1) the encore might have been announced from the stage! or 2) the Philharmonia Orchestra who we contacted should know but that was their advice about it!! or 3) like another reviewer online we could ignore the review completely!!!! If you were there and know more, as John suggests please let us know, thank you.

    There has been someone defending the absence of names and email addresses on comments S&H receives – hopefully this person didn’t consider themself a ‘keyboard warrior’ and has something useful to say each time and does not need to hide behind anonymity like a coward as a small minority do and write something insulting or otherwise inappropriate. That was my reason for writing that above.


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