Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's "Don Juan" is no less irresistible than the legend himself.
Friday night at Heinz Hall, Strauss' virtuosic and colorful tone poem received a torrent of talented solos and a surge of collective cohesiveness that made one's jaw drop. Break out the extra recording equipment now -- this work should certainly find its way into a future recording for the PSO, which already put "Ein Heldenleben" on disc with Mr. Honeck.
But if the conductor's feel for Strauss has been heard already here, "Don Juan" was at another level. Mr. Honeck always seemed to have the large-scale structure of the work in mind. Just about any conductor can cue in the vigorous opening theme representing the (sort of) hero or point to the concertmaster to play the subsequent solos in which Don Juan sweet talks a potential conquest -- guest Tomo Keller of the London Symphony Orchestra played them with silken tone. But it's quite another to pull back in tempo and tone the love sequence that follows, as Mr. Honeck did, allowing clarinetist Michael Rusinek to fill up the hall with his typically sonorous timbre.
It was an interpretation that kept the tension of the line but sought to tell the story more than dazzle with Strauss' vivid orchestration. Ever so subtly, he placed major moments in the story -- whether the hint of loneliness in a tender oboe solo by Cynthia DeAlmeida or the proud chest-pushing horn theme launched like a rocket by the PSO section or the main return of the Don Juan theme -- in relief from the rest of the score. The result was a taut reading that held musical attention as well as dramatic. Other performers of note include trumpeter George Vosburgh and, not just because of the serendipity of his name, guest timpanist Matthew Strauss.
More often than not, works of classical music are written about dealing with adversity more than they are products of it. After all, most compositions are written over a long period of time sitting at a desk or keyboard. Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7, "Leningrad," or Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time" are two notable exceptions, but the remainder of the program offered two responses to personal hardship.
Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 3 is touching in that the composer fought off mortal illness long enough to all but complete it so that his family could make some income from it (his wife, Ditta, was a concert pianist). Friday night, pianist Yefim Bronfman channeled that courage and the sadness that characterized this exquisite work.
With a preternatural sense for accent and rhythm, Mr. Bronfman is a perfect fit for the angularities of Bartok. You would need to invent some sort of microcaliper to gauge just how Mr. Bronfman is able to add emphasis to few notes of a phrase by way of slight changes in weight and tempo. But in a work of clarity and simplicity as this, such small shifts mean everything. Bartok is known for complexity, but his economy here recalls Beethoven's late period, and not by accident. The second movement quotes extensively from Beethoven's "Heiliger Dankgesang (Holy song of thanksgiving)," which he wrote for string quartet after recovering from an illness. This could have been wishful thinking on Bartok's part or a means of comforting his family. Regardless, this was the highlight, with Mr. Honeck guiding the orchestra in a patient and modest rendering of the song followed by Mr. Bronfman playing chorale-like music, never needing to show off his pianism (that he did in droves with his encore of Chopin's Etude No. 4 from the Op. 10 set).
Mozart was not yet ill when he penned his Symphony No. 39, but things were looking worse and worse for his prospects. Rather than wallow, he bore down and wrote this sophisticated work (and also symphonies Nos. 40 and 41).
After the slow introduction, in Mr. Honeck's hands, the first theme nearly floated off the violins. Dynamic contrasts led the movement to be grand and graceful while never sagging. The second movement found Mr. Honeck using slight ritardando to winning effect, as well as bringing out storminess -- in sum, acting like a sculptor as much as a conductor.