Fast pace hinders Beethoven's 9th

Concert Review

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How powerful is Beethoven's Symphony No. 9? When Sony and Phillips constructed the CD in the late 1970s, they made it conform to the famous work, to make sure a single disc could hold an entire performance of it.

Had they known conductor Manfred Honeck's blistering tempos, they might not have worried so much about the parameters.

Last night at Heinz Hall, the music director and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra returned after a successful European Tour to perform the "Choral" Symphony, moved to this weekend because of another international event, the G-20. It was yet another personal mark on a masterpiece by the Austrian conductor. I imagine that some will love it and others won't -- the kind of healthy collection of responses a music director should engender.

I personally felt the famous finale -- the movement that first introduced singers in a symphony singing Beethoven's folk-like setting of Schiller's "Ode to Joy" -- bounded along much too quickly. Under Honeck's driving tempos, the voices of the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh and soloists became like instruments, struggling to get the message and thwarting their very presence. On the other hand, I very much appreciated the faster tempos in the earlier movements.

Mr. Honeck's tempos are probably closer to those Beethoven wanted. While we can't take the metronome markings at face value with a composer who was essentially deaf when he placed them, most scholars and conductors think the piece has slowed down over the years. Under Mr. Honeck, the mystery of the opening of the symphony -- music seeming to flow out of nothingness -- was diminished, but the energetic flow of the rest of the first movement was stunning.

The faster speeds brought out elements you don't typically hear, much like how speeding up the rate of different photos creates the illusion of movement. The PSO was catlike in its leaping from phrase to phrase. To me, this was a statement of the fury of belligerent humanity that Beethoven would later exhort to become brothers in the "Ode." Likewise was Mr. Honeck's galloping second movement scherzo, with timpanist Christopher Allen's potent punctuations arriving like cannon shots.

But the trio of the second movement is where I began to depart from Mr. Honeck's reading. It is all well and good to get back to the origins of things, but there is no true authenticity in interpretation. We simply can never get back there, even if we would drink water with too much lead and use chamber pots. Mr. Honeck is not a period practitioner by name, but he often seeks its principles and it can hem him in at times. For instance, he could've simply slowed down the trio, a section that needs to be relaxed in contrast to the hectic scherzo. Instead it was uncomfortable and rushed.

It's the same diagnosis with the finale. Mr. Honeck could've made his point about the drama inherent in this work with a tempo more conducive to singing and that allowed the movement to bloom.

And it's the last part that bothered me the most. I don't mind speed, but there are several moments that raise the hairs on my neck in this work, such as when the full forces return after the "Turkish March" to sing the "Ode," and Mr. Honeck flew by them. I wouldn't care if Beethoven himself were swinging the baton, I need those special moments.

Other than to say they were in tune and had splendid timbres, so fast were the tempos I honestly cannot assess the talents of the soloists: soprano Simone Schneider, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, tenor Nicholas Phan and bass Eric Owens, nor the Mendelssohn Choir (directed by Betsy Burleigh).

Even so, Mr. Honeck coaxed many wonderful phrases throughout the Ninth, such as the buoyant flute line in the second movement and the luminous timbre of the strings and then woodwinds in the third movement Adagio. But sometimes the orchestra did get a little muddled in tutti sections.

It's not that the PSO can't play fast, but they are just used to playing the work slower. Just like most of us are used to hearing it. Mr. Honeck is entitled to his interpretation -- and I love that he has a strong vision. But this one went by like a blur for me.

The program repeats at 2:30 and 8 p.m. today and 2:30 p.m. Sunday.


Andrew Druckenbrod: adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750. Blog: Classical Musings at post-gazette.com/music


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