Honeck reveals beauty of Beethoven, Bruckner

11.21.08
Garrick Ohlsson
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Manfred Honeck's gift for presenting familiar music with fresh conviction produced a remarkable concert by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra on Thursday afternoon. It was the first of three performances of a program devoted to the music of Ludwig van Beethoven and Anton Bruckner.

Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 and Bruckner's Symphony No. 4 are 19th-century German works that have been performed often by the symphony. Their contrasting natures were honored with imaginative but unostentatious musicality.

Garrick Ohlsson was the classically oriented soloist in the Beethoven. The music's poetic sensibility can be effectively emphasized, but Ohlsson achieved his beauty without exaggeration. It was Beethoven's beauty that emerged from the piano -- thanks, of course, to the soloist's integrity and sterling technique.

The concerto is a true interplay between soloist and orchestra, rather than a virtuoso display. It was clear from the hushed orchestra entrance after the brief piano solo that starts this concerto that the collaboration was simpatico in a special way. The piano's normalcy was answered from a far perspective, which Honeck carried forward through a surprising array of keys before the soloist returned.

Ohlsson never overplayed, even at the recapitulation, while the intricacy of Beethoven's right-hand nuances flowed with just the right accents.

Honeck and the orchestra were harsh antagonists for the soloist at the start of the slow movement. The piano usually is overly subdued in replying to the orchestra at this point, but Ohlsson replied eloquently without raising his voice. The finale, too, at not too fast a tempo, was high spirited and, at the end, rushed to the joyous conclusion.

Honeck's Bruckner Fourth was a revelation, but not in the way "revelation" usually is used for this spiritual composer. This was a musical revelation, with Honeck's ear clarifying textures. Indeed, there were many passages where parts emerged that usually are lost. One of the most amazing examples occurred near the end of the finale movement where parts for basses and bassoons were clarified for the first time in my experience.

It also was a performance of masterly pacing, sometimes a little quicker than expected, and, at other times, with a bit of extra spaciousness. The Scherzo, for example, a hunting scherzo full of horn calls, was brisk and extra exciting.

Principal horn William Caballero was deeply songful in his prominent solos and well matched in artistry by other wind principals. It was a performance to renew gratitude that Honeck is now music director.