We'd like to think that classical music is a meritocracy. We'd like to place it apart from pop music, where popularity often seems to trumps quality. The truth is, just as many factors from personal to societal have been in play in the slow building of the standard repertory.
In a way, this makes the case of Ludwig van Beethoven all the more remarkable. After all he is German and found support in Vienna, two criteria that could put a lesser talent in the canon. But he never played the game. His turbulent yet profound music challenged the status quo and his belligerent personality rebuffed even his friends. The reason he is still performed so widely and his influence so great is, well, his music. I am a relativist when it comes to everything musical except for Beethoven.
With that sort of hyperbole typical, it's no wonder that so many conductors genuflect before his scores rather than conduct it. Manfred Honeck is not one of those. Friday night at Heinz Hall, in an all-Beethoven program, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra music director again showed that he respects the composer enough to disregard the aura. Beethoven might have tried to control the performances of his music late in life by retroactively placing metronome markings on them, but he surely wouldn't argue with taking liberties in interpretation.
And so, in a concert that strangely ended with an overture ("Leonore" No. 3), Mr. Honeck offered Beethoven bared, fully embracing the gruffness of his music and how that brings greater sweetness to tender moments.
Beethoven's Symphony No. 6, "Pastoral," is one of those rare works in which the composer lays out a "plot" in no uncertain terms. Each movement is like a chapter, with a descriptive title. But in Mr. Honeck's hands, the music of this tale of life in the country jumped out like a pop-up book, with dynamics ranging from barely audible to ear-poundingly loud. The first movement flowed gently like a brook in a meadow; the music's many twists and turns connected gracefully. That brook became more prominent in the next movement, ending with a chorus of birdcalls in the woodwinds brought out much more by the maestro than usual. (Speaking of that, clarinetist Michael Rusinek played both cuckoos himself on an unusual double-barrel instrument.)
The third movement's peasant dances found Mr. Honeck again tapping into that world directly rather than from an ivory tower distance. In his hands the music did dance, and the merry town band blared in rustic, ragged glory -- all without a hint of poking fun. From timpani to violins, the storm's thunder rolled over the orchestra leading to the celebratory finale, although the tremolos seemed to be lightning that lingered. Guest concertmaster Peter Otto of the Cleveland Orchestra led the charge admirably. There were too many excellent solos to mention, but in a way, few stood out due to the cohesiveness of the interpretation. The Sixth is actually my least favorite Beethoven symphony, but I might need to revise that.
What a contrast, then, was the work that followed, Piano Concerto No. 1, with pianist Lars Vogt. He is a spectacular pianist and entitled to his interpretation, but here was a reading that did not fit with the reality of the composer. Beethoven burst onto the scene as a pianist, and one with a bold, epic style that dwarfed the polite traditional playing of the (forte) piano as more like a harpsichord.
Mr. Vogt instead offered a poetic and almost coy treatment that, while aglow with an exquisite tone, deflated the concerto. His demure playing of the cadenza of the first movement was original, I will give it that, but it subverted the role of this piano-only section as a buildup to the end of the movement. The approach hit the mark in the slow middle movement, but the contrast was lost.
Contrast reigned supreme in "Leonore" No. 3, one of a handful of overtures to Beethoven's opera "Fidelio." Here again, Mr. Honeck went for extremes but only in the service of the work's, well, many merits.
Program repeats at 2:30 p.m. Sunday.