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Friday, January 4, 2013

Concert Review: A New Conductor for a New Year

Manfred Honeck debuts with the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Conductor Manfred Honeck made his New York Philharmonic
debut on Thursday night with Braunfels, Beethoven and Grieg.
Image framegrabbed from a webcast. 
The New York Philharmonic got 2013 off to a brisk start with a Jan. 3 concert led by Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra music director Manfred Honeck. This marked the Austrian conductor's debut with the orchestra. He came armed with a work the Philharmonic had never played before: his Suite from Walter Braunfels' Fantastic Apparitions on a Theme by Hector Berlioz. The program also featured two well-traveled favorites: Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto (with pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet) and Beethoven's Symphony No. 7.

Walter Braunfels (1882-1954) was an underrated German composer whose large body of work has been virtually ignored since he fell out of favor with the Nazi regime. He wrote a number of operas and orchestral works, the best known being the comic Aristophanes-inspired Die Vogel. This composition, finished in 1917)  is built on Mephistopheles' "Song of the Flea" from Berlioz' La damnation de Faust. The whole work is roughly fifty minutes. Mr. Honeck's version includes the Introduction and three variations and lasts just ten.

Braunfels' work re-imagines the Devil's aria as a series of increasingly complex orchestral variations. The original Berlioz melody played on the cornet before yielding way to a languorous tone poem for the whole orchestra, overlaid on a lush carpet of strings that would make Richard Strauss proud. (That composer's influence is also audible in the harmonies, which echo some of the more sensual pages of Der Rosenkavalier.) The final variation brings back the original theme, charging forward with vigor and renewed purpose. This movement recalled Berlioz' own anarchic spirit, and made one curious to hear the entire piece.

Next, the orchestra was joined by Mr. Thibaudet, playing Grieg's Piano Concerto. Inspired directly by a much greater Concerto from the pen of Robert Schumann, this is nevertheless an audience favorite, requiring precision in its complex cadenzas and keyboard filigree.

Mr. Thibaudet is an internationally acclaimed soloist and recording artist. But this performance featured slurred phrases in the big solos and a general lack of climax to the long solos that interrupt the first and third movements. It is one thing to be debonair with an aura of careless elegance. It is yet another for that attitude to seep into one's playing. That said, the orchestra and Mr. Honeck supplied excellent accompaniment, with the characteristic Norwegian folk phrases (so beloved by Grieg) pushed squarely to the fore.

Happily the Beethoven that followed made one swiftly forget the fallacies of the Grieg. Under Mr. Honeck, this was a muscular rendition of the Seventh Symphony, Beethoven's apocalyptic invocation of peasant dance rhythms that sounded here as if his peasants had decided to take a break from carousing to go save the world. The first movement resounded with rough-and-tumble energy, as the orchestra was exhorted to deliver that extra effort in each repeat of the main subject. Tempos were brisk but not rapid, and the rests between notes had room to breathe.

The famous Adagietto was even better, eloquently played but with the heavy, relentless power of a slowly rolling wheel. The Scherzo had some of the evening's finest moments as the party turned raucous, with just the right proportion of Apollonian precision and Dionysian energy. From there, Mr. Honeck leapt straight into the final Rondo, accelerating through the repeats and bringing the last chords of his first Philharmonic concert to a crashing close.

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