Honeck takes a natural approach to Bruckner

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Fresh off a fresh interpretation of one warhorse, Manfred Honeck is back to shake up another.

In his debut as music director in September, Honeck gave Heinz Hall patrons an unusually onomatopoetic and gritty depiction of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 1. This week, he will do the same with Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 4 in E-flat Major. Honeck again looks to slice through interpretations of most 20th-century conductors to take the music back to its original context.

Bruckner (1824-1896) is thought of today as a devout Austrian Catholic composer who wrote lengthy and transcendent symphonies. You often hear the term "Bruckner time" to describe the deliberate harmonic movement of his slow developing themes. Once you submit to his unhurried tempos, it is said, then the massive blocks of sound, inspired by his work as a church organist, lead to quasi-religious moments.

Pittsburgh Symphony
  • Program: Manfred Honeck, conductor; pianist Garrick Ohlsson, soloist. Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4, Bruckner: Symphony No. 4
  • Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown.
  • When: 1:30 p.m. tomorrow; 8 p.m. Friday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
  • Tickets: $12.50 to $79; 412-392-4900.

It's largely true -- for Bruckner's later symphonies.

"Many people feel you can only see Bruckner from the sacred, that everything must have a tempo as if it were played in the cathedral," says Honeck. "He was not only an organist, he played in string groups. He was religious, but also interested in Austrian folk music."

Honeck views Symphony No. 4 as "the most non-sacred" of all Bruckner's symphonies: "Of course, you find some chorales, but the theme is like a fairy tale. "[Symphonies] Seven, Eight and Nine are definitely epic, but with Four there is a feeling of a German woodsman hero -- it is full of Middle Ages knight stories."

Bruckner himself subtitled the symphony "Romantic," in the tradition of the sentimentalized view of folk life and nature prevalent throughout 19th-century Germanic countries. "From beginning to end, it is taking from nature," says Honeck. "Each movement has stories" and a more "lively" approach is required.

"Bruno Walter is doing that; so is Hermann Abendroth in the 1930s in Leipzig," says Honeck. "Even [Wilhelm] Furtwangler and early conductors are concentrating on this liveliness. They knew exactly how the folk music worked. They had it in their heart."

But later generations of conductors tended to view composers' scores with more deference -- the notes on the page carried more weight than the performing traditions. "Walter would [do] a crescendo that isn't written," says Honeck. "But later [Herbert von] Karajan said, no, it is not written and I don't do it."

Nowhere was this truer than with Bruckner's 4th. The "liveliness" of which Honeck speaks is heard in shorter recordings by earlier conductors. The first movement of Walter's 1960 recording with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra is 18 minutes, 40 seconds, and an unmannered reading by Carl Schuricht (RSO Stuttgart, 1955) comes in at 17:40. Otto Klemperer's recording with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra from 1951 clocks in at 13:27 and with the Cologne Radio Symphony in 1954 at 14:48; both are highly dramatic interpretations.

The next generation pulled back the tempos and added more legato playing. Herbert von Karajan's 1970 recording (Berlin Philharmonic) runs 19:53. Georg Tintner (Royal Scottish National Orchestra, 1996) ambles to 21:33 and celebrated Mahler conductor Sergiu Celibidache (Munich Philharmonic, 1988) lumbers in at 21:56.

The later conductors lend extra weight and solemnity to passages that didn't have it before, says Honeck. "Later on, everyone is getting serious."

Honeck's tempos will fall closer to the earlier camp: "Every phrase in this Romantic symphony has meaning. As a conductor, I must find that out and from there get the tempo. This idea is not from me, but from Bruckner."

That story of Symphony No. 4 starts with that first movement depicting "the dawn, with a signal [coming] from a tower far away to wake up the people," says Honeck. Bruckner accomplished this with a horn call -- the traditional symphonic symbol for nature -- above misty tremolos in the strings.

For the second theme, Bruckner wrote two bouncy violin notes marked pizzicato, dropping down to a long lower one. "It is a bird in upper Austria -- zizibe, a little chirping bird," says Honeck. "Always when I do this Bruckner symphony, players present a long, sacred version of this, but it is completely wrong." That's because contemporary conductors do their best to smooth the line out. Honeck directs it to sound more like a bird call.

The second movement is a love song ("He never had success with a woman, so it is melancholic. At the end he is almost giving up," the conductor explains.) The third movement scherzo ushers in the hunt, and the finale starts with a storm, but then becomes festive after the hunt. An Austro-Hungarian march enters, as do earlier themes. The piece ends in a celebratory cheer in the home key of E-flat major.

Honeck hopes he will open some ears with his approach to Symphony No. 4.

"Our goal must be to sharpen the ideas you get from the composers," he says.

Classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com . He blogs at Classical Musings at post-gazette.com .


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