Concert Review: Honeck, PSO deliver a dramatic reading of Mahler's Sixth
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A hammer resting prior to use or five hammer blows. In the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's performance of Gustav Mahler's Sixth Symphony Friday night at Heinz Hall, it was hard to tell which held more power. Certainly music director Manfred Honeck's conducting of the four-movement piece led a rapt audience into four massive exhales. It was both a physical and metaphysical experience.
If Mahler's Sixth, wedged between the famous Fifth and the three late opuses, suffers from a little neglect, it's in keeping with a work that embodies suffering. Mahler, one of the great programmatic composers, designed this symphony to shine a hard light on life. A heroic person, the protagonist who is victorious in his earlier works, rails against a driving fate only to be battered down and ultimately crushed by the world, or perhaps the hubris that he could do without nature, represented by pastoral cowbells in the distance at key moments.
Mr. Honeck, fast becoming the preeminent Mahler interpreter working today, locked onto Mahler's conception with remarkable intensity. But amid an interpretation that so synced with the dramatic work as to almost seem not to be interpretation at all, was a bold decision. He went back to an early manuscript of the symphony that calls for a wooden sledgehammer to strike a large box five times throughout the finale -- several coming as the work reaches what would have been victorious climaxes.
Mahler later removed three of these, deciding that five was overboard.
Mr. Honeck's restoration of all five strikes, delivered with force by percussionist Andrew Reamer, added even more weight and drama to the finale. But long before that, the Sixth began with the hammer resting on the box. Who in the audience didn't see that and wonder what it was for, or how it would sound?
Mr. Honeck has a keen sense of when to follow a Mahler score and when to deviate. He let the driving march that ushers in the hero already fighting and haunted by demonic laughter in woodwind trills. But the conductor pulled back masterfully in the gentle music that gives the protagonist some solace -- a chorale and then a soaring melody Mahler meant to represent his wife, Alma. The energy was almost uncontainable, but the balance was consistently superb. You could hear every theme, from the pounding of fate on the timpani to the complex flourishes that moved uncannily across the orchestra. A duet by concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley and principal horn player William Caballero, were just one of many remarkable moments.
Here and in later movements Mahler contrasts this music with cowbells, representing the hero's growing detachment from nature. These are played offstage, but in the only disappointment of the night they were nearly inaudible. The slow movement that followed (also a bucking of the usual by Mr. Honeck in that put this movement before the third movement, a Scherzo) floated above the stage. The trio of the scherzo is a section in which the protagonist is tortured by thoughts of a lost youth. It is represented by country song that Mr. Honeck stylized in a quasi-authentic manner that turned the knife. After the final hammer blow gave credence to the work's subtitle "Tragic" the audience could not restrain itself even as Mr. Honeck tried to stretch out the final notes.
The concert opened with a fun work written by the conductor/composer Eugene Goossens: Concert Piece for Oboe, Two Harps and Orchestra. It was written for his family and it was another musical family that performed the odd concerto: oboist James Gorton, his wife Gretchen Van Hoesen, and his daughter Heidi Van Hoesen Gorton, both harpists. They displayed uncommon cohesiveness and musicality even as the piece called for virtuosic and sometimes awkward passages --and some funny props amid musical quotations.
First Published June 16, 2012 12:36 am