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Symphony crowns top performance with bravura

01.22.10
Emanuel Ax
Pittsburgh Tribune

By Mark Kanny

Conductor Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra were back at the top of their game Friday night at Heinz Hall, offering remarkable interpretations performed with the utmost commitment.

The first concert after a seven-week absence began with an exciting performance of Ludwig van Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 -- known as the "Emperor" -- featuring soloist Emanuel Ax. His playing was full of bravura, sensitive phrasing and touch, and a wonderful array of trills.

Ax said in a recent interview that a conductor's most important contribution to a concerto performance is the kind of energy he or she brings. Honeck brings many kinds of energy to each piece he conducts, including in this concerto swift urgency to the first movement and a slow movement that had the nobility of spirit Beethoven intended. The collaboration between soloist and orchestra was as close as chamber music.

Ax's encore was an exquisite account of "Des Abends" (In the Evening), the first of Robert Schumann's Fantasy Pieces, Op. 12.

After intermission Honeck lead a breathtaking performance of Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 7.

The piece begins with a barely audible string tremolo after which the initial idea is a glorious ascending line for celli doubled by horn for only four measures. Honeck created a striking long line, connecting everything beyond after the horn bows out to when the woodwinds and violins pick up the opening idea with new colors and feeling.

It is no accident that the opening musical idea works so well when played with an inverted version of itself (up goes down). Bruckner spent many hours working through inversions. It is not merely a technical device in his hands and contributes some of the symphony's most remarkably atmospheric moments.

In color, weight and pacing, Honeck made the spirituality of Bruckner's slow movement a darkly glowing reality. The lament played by the tenor tuben and horn after the big climax with timpani, cymbals and triangle was written right after the composer heard of the death of Richard Wagner. Wagner had invented the tenor tuben with his friend Hans Richter, a horn player and conductor.

Every section of the strings, winds and brass made wonderful contributions. Timpanist Chris Allen produced some awesome sonorities, including a long low E rolled pedal in the first movement..

The surprise was the impressive guest principal flute David Buck. He's principal flute of the Oregon Symphony.