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Popular Music Rarely Played

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
01/03/2013 -  & January 4, 5, 2013
Walter Braunfels: Phantastische Erscheinungen eines Themas von Hector Berlioz, Opus 25 (excerpts)
Edvard Grieg: Piano Concerto in A Minor, Opus 16
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony Nr. 7 in A Major, Opus 92

Jean-Yves Thibaudet (Piano)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Manfred Honeck (Guest Conductor)

M. Honeck (© IMG)

The only question possible after last night’s concert is “Where has Manfred Honeck been all our lives?”

Austrian-born, he is Music Director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (with a contract extended until 2020), guest-conducting with virtually every orchestra n America and Europe. But last night was, I believe, his first concert with the New York Philharmonic

Any musical Catechism would call this a venal Sin of Omission.

Yes, Mr. Honeck is an exciting conductor to watch. He is visceral, energetic and just graceful enough for Beethoven’s “dance” symphony. He also did the impossible: he was more impressive than the great French pianist, Jean-Yves Thibaudet. But Mr. Thibaudet may have had bad night last night, so that shouldn’t count.

And while Mr. Honeck should have stood out for the New York premiere of a work by the virtually unknown Walter Braunfels, it was not this, but his Beethoven Seventh Symphony which made the evening so startling.

Everybody “knows” this light, lively spirited piece. But Mr. Honeck conducted with the full impact of a huge great orchestra behind him. After all, this was no ballet. This was Beethoven. And Mr. Honeck gave it full weight.

Structurally, this was most fulfilling. Mr. Honeck carefully graded all those great crescendos of the opening movement, leading to growing excitement well as rhythmic vitality. The second movement was not taken with its usual lachrymose funeral treatment, but at a very sensible allegretto pace. This was not a highly emotional reading but the reading of a superb musical edifice.

At first, I had thought that the slow sections of the Presto was too slow, but Mr. Honeck had his tricks. This really was a musical joke à la Beethoven, for that seeming stall of the tempos was only to give a whiplash surprise as the music speeded up again. The finale was not, as Donald Tovey once said, “the triumph of Bacchic fury” It was fast, vigorous but played with intensity, clarity all the spirit which such a massive masterwork deserves.

J.-Y. Thibaudet (© Joe Boede)

Frankly, Mr. Thibaudet was, for many in Avery Fisher Hall last night, the major attraction. His eclecticism and virtuosity has made him a deservedly major star. One wondered how he would handle that still gorgeous old warhorse, the Grieg Concerto. The sad truth was that, with all his pianistic brilliance, Mr. Thibaudet seemed distracted, not really committed to the piece.

He was brilliant enough in the frequent bravura passages, he was certainly nimble in those contrasting more simple sections. And while nobody could say he was robotic in the playing, it was hardly a beguiling performance. Next to other 19th Century concerti, this is a simple straightforward work, but such simplicity is charm in itself, and Mr. Thibaudet seemed somewhat detached. Perhaps tonight and Saturday, his usual élan will return.

If the Grieg was the most popular work on the program, the opening Walter Braunfels Fantastic Apparitions on a Theme by Berlioz (specifically, “The Song of the Flea” from Damnation of Faust), was certainly the rarest. I had never heard of the composer before yesterday, but listening to the entire 50-minute work on YouTube brought the revelations that this was a man very much in the Straussian mode.

Indeed, almost paralleling Strauss’s productive years (he lived 1882-1954), Braunfels was obviously a master of the large orchestra, his lush Late Romantic harmonies were attractive, and the four excerpts played last night were certainly appealing.

True, one variation was almost plagiarism, coming from the third-act trio of Rosenkavalier. But still, Braunfels altered Berlioz’ theme nicely, and the finale trombone descants were an homage to the Frenchman.

Mr. Honeck has been a champion of Walter Braunfels, and one would hope that on his next visit–for there must be a next visit very soon–he will play the work in its entirety.

Harry Rolnick



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