Concert review: PSO and soloist Denis Matsuev push music to limit


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Things have been a little unsettled in the land of Heinz this week with the company's sale, but I wasn't expecting that to extend to Heinz Hall. Yet to my ears the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concert Friday night never seemed to, well, settle down.

But before I throw a wet blanket on the concert led by music director Manfred Honeck, let me wring it out at least: The concert was buzzing with excitement. It was a full house with more energy than I have felt in some time. And there were wonderful moments. But at times there was something amiss in the two main works, Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 and Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, with pianist Denis Matsuev on the bench.

The concert began in a frenzy with Mussorgsky's famous "A Night on Bald Mountain." The terror in this depiction of the convocation of spirits and devils was enhanced by Mr. Honeck's accents so much that even the arrival of the dawn seemed a temporary fix rather than a full banishment.

But where that work gains from a pushing of timbre, the two compositions that followed do not. Things began on an ominous note when the piano displayed a gruff tone and uneven intonation in the lower register for Mr. Matsuev's ushering in of the concerto. This is not to blame the tuner or anyone, these things just happen, especially on dry nights. That was soon forgotten in the wild rumpus that is the first movement. Mr. Matsuev's ability to carry the melody despite the herculean task of Rachmaninoff's solo writing was impressive. Even more than that, Mr. Honeck matched the grand piano with essentially grand pauses that heightened the drama of the movement.

But the second movement -- awash with a bittersweet Adagio theme -- found the pianist out of sync with the score and the PSO out of sync with him. Mr. Matsuev played as if he were following the music rather than leading it. He recovered in the finale, bringing these melodies to life, but here the orchestra's tone was harsh, especially in the woodwinds. Yes, the virtuosity was astounding, but it felt like a race to the finish.

Mr. Honeck's interpretation of Beethoven's Seventh is a ferocious one, a reading designed to capture the vigor and might of the work. The tempos are fast and the baton always pushing forward. But the piece in my estimation has an Austrian-German folksy buoyancy to it to it that is missed in Mr. Honeck's hyper-dramatic thrust. The first movement began majestically, but the winds were strident. The famous second movement was too rigid. The third movement was spot on, because it is intended to be potent, but the finale had an anxiousness rather than a celebration. This is not all Mr. Honeck's interpretation. The orchestra, again the winds in particular, seemed stiff and the trumpets were too loud in portions.

For me, anyway, Mr. Honeck's pushing sometimes became a shove.

Program repeats at 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

music

Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod: adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750. He blogs at www.post-gazette.com/classicalmusings.


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