Honeck ignites CSO with fiery and revelatory Beethoven

Fri Dec 12, 2014 at 1:42 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Manfred Honeck conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music of Haydn, Strauss and Beethoven Thursday night. Photo: Felix Broede
Manfred Honeck conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music of Haydn, Strauss and Beethoven Thursday night. Photo: Felix Broede

Yes, “revelatory Beethoven” sounds like an oxymoron. After two centuries and countless hearings, how can anyone possibly find something new to say in a Beethoven symphony?

On Thursday night Manfred Honeck showed how it’s done, teaming up with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for an incendiary performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony that proved as fresh and illuminating as it was edge-of-the-seat thrilling.

Two years ago Honeck displayed a unique ability to infuse familiar music with notable glint and urgency in a memorable performance of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8 (Honeck’s recording of the same work with his Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra was nominated for a Grammy last week.)

Thursday night’s performances of Richard Strauss and Beethoven, especially, was even more of an achievement—first, because the music is even better known and, second, because the CSO woodwinds and brass didn’t play all that well. (All the wind principals were off and there were a couple ringers filling in.)

Yet even with that handicap, Honeck struck sparks in a striking and distinctive way. The Austrian conductor is a dynamic podium figure with a kinetic style that seems to ignite an extra degree of electricity from the musicians. From the hard punch of the opening chord of the Seventh Symphony, we knew this was not just another routine Beethoven outing.

The slow introduction had knife-edged tension and tautness, with a buoyant swing into the vaulting Vivace throwing off huge vitality yet with precisely judged balances. (Honeck’s preferred layout—violins split left and right, cellos and violas inside and basses behind to the left, aided the transparency.)

The second movement has lost much of its unique eloquence through over-familiarity and too many surfacey traversals. Yet here Honeck and the CSO musicians really made this music seem freshly minted. Somber, hushed, and darkly brooding, the playing had a striking legato underpinning and subtle dynamic contrasts that never felt pedantic, rendered with a seamless fluency that conveyed the Allegretto’s subdued tragedy in a startlingly modern way. The effect was mesmerizing.

The scherzo was very fleet and light–a true Presto, snappy and playful. Honeck’s finale was traditional yet went with terrific vitality and ebullience. There was much smiling among the players as they rocked back and forth in this relentlessly rhythmic music, and Honeck ratcheted up the momentum to a blazing coda. An instant and huge ovation went up with repeated curtain calls, which Honeck shared generously with the CSO musicians.

Don Juan was the evening’s centerpiece, and in Thursday’s performance Richard Strauss’s brilliant tone poem delivered a thrilling ride by any measure. The opening flourish leaped forth with outsized vitality and heroic panache, Michael Henoch spun a lovely, insinuating oboe solo and the Romantic episodes has great Romantic ardency and warmth while firmly outlined by Honeck.

Unfortunately, the CSO horn section was not at their best, and the Don’s climactic theme soared with more muscle than polish. Still, even the fitful slips here and elsewhere were not enough to detract from this performance. The quiet coda, which almost always feels like an anticlimax, was especially fine, Honeck eliciting a weird, slithery string color for the Don’s final death rattle.

The evening opened with music of Haydn, still the least played of the great composers. The first movement of the Symphony No. 93 was scrupulously refined, tight and well played yet a bit tense and lacking in charm.

Just as one began to think that maybe Haydn isn’t Honeck’s guy, the performance found its footing. The second movement was graceful and dynamically nuanced, with a hushed prelude to the rude bassoon blat, given robust expulsion by Dennis Michel.

The scherzo went with sharp dynamic contrast and while the finale is not one of Haydn’s wittiest closers, Honeck’s crackling direction and some superbly athletic string playing put across the scoring ingenuity delightfully.

But it was that Beethoven Seventh that was truly something special. Dammit, I’m going back to hear it again.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. cso.org; 313-294-3000.

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