Concert review: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra fine-tunes Mahler's 2nd

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Gustav Mahler asked profound questions in his Symphony No. 2. "Why have you lived? Why have you suffered?" And, "Is all of this a wild dream, or has life and death a meaning?"

A more pertinent question, so to speak, for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is how it will perform the immense work in Vienna in two weeks as part of another prestigious European tour. That would be the Vienna on whose streets the composer once strolled. In the Great Hall of the Musikverein, that hub of Germanic art music. Oh, and recorded live for future release on disc.

If the PSO and music director Manfred Honeck can match the performance of the symphony known as the "Resurrection" that it offered Friday night at Heinz Hall, the answer is, That'll do. Yes, that'll do just fine.

The Mendelssohn Choir, which responded well to Mr. Honeck's conception of sound in Mahler, won't make the trip to Vienna. The renowned Singverein will take its place in the concerts Nov. 2 and 3.

It's difficult to remember exactly how Mr. Honeck directed Symphony No. 2 in 2009, but it seemed more streamlined.

The five-movement work has a large-scale ebb and flow that is difficult to manage. The conductor clearly had that in mind then and now, but Friday he folded its bold and contrasting sections into the work more than he had earlier. The offstage instruments were less distinct from the whole and the solos more part of the texture.

Mr. Honeck's emphasis on the drama of this work -- it opens with the funeral of a hero and follows the journey of his soul to blissful attainment -- was still there. But when an offstage instrument or a haunting solo by trombone player Peter Sullivan, English horn player Harold Smoliar, or singers Amelia D'Arcy and Gerhild Romberger took place, they served a single purpose rather than sticking out.

But one element did stand out to me -- the glimmering polish of the violins, especially the country dance in the second movement when Mr. Honeck called on them to mimic the zither. Urged on by concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley, the playing was impossibly smooth and unaffected.

Yes, that'll do just fine.


Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod: or 412-263-1750. He blogs at Twitter: @druckenbrod.


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