Last Thursday night, the New York Philharmonic played a concert with Manfred Honeck on the podium. He is the music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and one of the best conductors in the world. He and the Philharmonic performed a program of Beethoven and Mahler.
That Beethoven was a piano concerto, the one in C major. Its soloist was Inon Barnatan, an Israeli. The orchestra begins the concerto—the pianist has to wait for a while—and the Philharmonic was superb in this opening. More to the point, Honeck was. The music had a feeling of “just rightness.” That is a phrase I have often applied to the conducting of James Levine.
What do I mean by it? Well, take the opening of the Beethoven concerto. It was “just right” in tempo, weight, note values, accents, and so on. It had an inarguability. I found myself looking forward to the concerto’s tuttis.
Mr. Barnatan is a skilled pianist. In this first movement, he was clear and crisp, neat and tidy. Several weeks ago, he played in a chamber concert, and I noticed that he was an especially good rippler. A pianist is often called on to ripple—especially in music of the Classical period—and Barnatan produces an A-1 ripple effect. Another such pianist would be Richard Goode.
The sound of this pianist (Barnatan) tended to the small and thin. The music would have benefited from a richer and creamier sound. The pianist was often on the surface. And, to put it bluntly, I would have liked him louder. “Sing out, Louise,” came to mind.
Back to the orchestra for a moment. Somewhere along the line, there was flatness—hideous flatness—in the woodwinds. It was like you had suddenly chugged sour milk. It was shocking, frankly.
The second movement, Largo, began together. The piano and the orchestra were absolutely together. I stress this because it is uncommon. Mr. Barnatan played gracefully—that can be expected. But, again, the sound was small and thin. The music therefore could not be exploited.
I was looking forward to the Rondo, because litheness is at a premium in that movement, and Barnatan has that in spades. As he played, he missed notes. More than you might have expected. But that served to confirm that this was not a studio recording, thank heaven.
In response to an enthusiastic audience, Barnatan played an encore, and it was more Beethoven: the last movement, the Presto, of the Sonata in F, Op. 10, No. 2. I love this movement as an encore. I also love the final movement of the Sonata in A flat, Op. 26, as an encore. They work well as finishers of their sonatas, and they work well as encores.
Barnatan was not at his best in the F-major Presto. He was rushed and sloppy.
After intermission, there was a Mahler symphony, the First, nicknamed “the Titan.” In the hands of Maestro Honeck, the opening movement was unusually slow and unusually well shaped. It was better conducted than it was played. The Philharmonic was out of tune, errant, ugly. This movement, like much Mahler, needs a little beauty of sound, or a lot.
The ensuing movement was blessedly not too fast. Over and over, this movement is spoiled by a surfeit of speed. Not this time. Also, it was very well defined, by Honeck. It was not well played. Look, beauty of sound isn’t everything. Not by a long shot. But it’s also not nothing, especially in Mahler.
The New York Philharmonic sometimes touts itself as a “Mahler orchestra,” because Mahler worked here a thousand years ago. And Bernstein conducted a lot of Mahler. Etc. But if they insist on being a “Mahler orchestra,” they will have to play better.
They did in the third movement of the First. This began with the double-bass solo. As the movement continued, the Philharmonic sounded like an orchestra. A real orchestra. The Jewish section of the movement was sufficiently, though not perfectly, Jewish. The G-major section, so heavenly, was sufficiently heavenly.
As for the finale, it began with the right terror, and precision. Maestro Honeck was magnificent—magnificent in his understanding and exertions. The French-horn players, so vital in this symphony, did some good playing. And some bad playing. What an ungenerous instrument. They stood in the final pages, as is tradition. One of the players, Howard Wall, stood exceptionally tall.
Mahler, a shorty, would have been impressed. Or bitterly envious.
It’s hard for me to sum up this performance. Honeck looked like a man without a country—a great conductor searching for an orchestra, at least in the first two movements. And then, the Philharmonic woke up, or decided to play.
I would like to end with a question for you: What is the best first symphony ever written? Beethoven’s? Schumann’s? Brahms’s? Mahler’s? Shostakovich’s (a graduation piece)?
I couldn’t say. I would hate to pick against Brahms’s. Or against Schumann’s. (It may be my very favorite of his four.) And I would really hate to pick against Mahler’s. What a debut. A masterpiece, undyingly vivid and uplifting. A conqueror of malaise, a banisher of darkness.