Honeck, PSO bring out power, glory of Bruckner

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After decades of fawning over child prodigies, today's world might instead look to Anton Bruckner as a more realistic example of genius. At the very least, his story is potentially more inspiring. Whosoever doesn't have Wolfgang Mozart's innate talent isn't likely to acquire it, but Bruckner's example of how something inside can incubate for years before blooming is achievable on some level.

In a sense, Bruckner is the ultimate second-career composer. He spent the first 40 years of his life within miles of his village in Austria playing the church organ, and didn't start to seriously write music until he was in his 40s. He wrote his arguably biggest success, his monumental Symphony No. 7, in his 50s, and hearing it performed by the Pittsburgh Symphony under the baton of music director Manfred Honeck leaves you awe.

One thing is certain: If an inner voice takes that long to develop, it is not going to be imitative. Not that Bruckner didn't try. He took extra composition courses and tests and he worshiped Wagner. But everything he wrote came out like Bruckner.

Whether they liked it or not, all the patrons in Heinz Hall last night could surely hear what this meant. The slow harmonic movement, in which chords take seemingly forever to change, pulled the audience into "Bruckner time." Once transfixed, wave after wave of climatic movements washed over us.

Fellow Austrian Honeck worked to capture these characteristics, and erect this sonic cathedral with long lines and broad tone. But more than a few details put Honeck's stamp on the work.

Honeck's tempos were generally brisk, creating an active aura to a symphony that can sometimes be too slow under conductors who treat it like sacred music. His marshalling of an array of tremolos -- quickly repeated pitches on the strings -- brought wonderful color. Some were breathy, some electric, and some in between. Honeck also again invoked a folk element, approaching the waltz in the second movement like, well, a waltz, and not the lumbering thing it often is under other conductors.

The strings, led by guest concertmaster Kyu-Young Kim, responded well, and I don't know if I have ever heard a more burnished timbre in the firsts. The woodwinds throughout provided nuances that blended well, especially the solos of guest principal flutist David Buch, of the Oregon Symphony.

But the balance was often an issue. The horns and Wagner tubas, which provided some of the most thrilling moments in the work in the second movement that Bruckner wrote as a tribute to Wagner (the orchestra almost seemed to be weeping), dominated many of the climaxes, along with the other brass. This doesn't discount several gorgeously mellow solos by principal horn William Caballero, but I needed to hear more strings in the moments of musical apotheosis. But still, it was a potent reading that captured the work through details and structure.

Sorry to give short shrift to pianist Emanuel Ax, who opened the concert soloing in Beethoven's "Emperor" Piano Concerto. He played it with typical panache and even a little humor, and it was satisfying to hear Honeck let the orchestra play with a full sound.

The concert repeats tonight at 8.

Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com.


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