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BWW Review: How to Do Beethoven and Mahler, Compliments of NY Philharmonic under Honeck and Soloist Barnatan

BWW Review: How to Do Beethoven and Mahler, Compliments of NY Philharmonic under Honeck and Soloist Barnatan
Pianist Inon Barnatan and the NY Philharmonic
led by Manfred Honeck. Photo: Chris Lee

Audiences at the New York Philharmonic have been known to come for the soloists and then slip out for the symphony. There didn't seem to be a lot of that at last Thursday's performance led by maestro Manfred Honeck, which began with a wonderful Beethoven Piano Concerto #1 in C Major from Inon Barnatan and kept growing from there to a brilliant Mahler's Symphony #1.

In fact, for a cold night in February, things were pretty hot in David Geffen Hall, both in the Philharmonic's performance--and in the audience's reception. Not only did the crowd cheer Barnatan's interpretation of the Beethoven, which flew from his fingers, but they were almost rowdy in their appreciation of the orchestra and Honeck, Music Director of the Pittsburgh Symphony, after a masterly Mahler.

Barnatan is in his third and final season as the Philharmonic's first Artist-in-Association, which gives young artists like him a chance to show off the breadth of their talents and, not coincidentally, bring them to a broader audiences. At Geffen Hall on Thursday, the young pianist's performance of Beethoven's concerto (written second but published first) let us hear the Mozart influence on Beethoven, then showed Mr. B becoming his own man--maybe not yet the composer of the Emperor, but unmistakably a voice to be reckoned with.

Barnatan isn't one of those soloists who lets the angst hang out to show how hard he's been working, but an artist who makes his performance look easy. He flew through the early part of the concerto's first movement, in a totally non-showy way and with a thorough sense of enjoyment, but also had the gravitas to pull off the big moments--particularly in the long cadenza also composed by Beethoven. He was a fount of energy when called upon in the Rondo: Allegro that finished the piece in a superb performance. After several curtain calls, Barnatan played the finale from a Beethoven sonata for good measure. And good it was.

After the intermission, the orchestra had grown to mammoth proportions for the Mahler (somewhere around 100 musicians), seeming in danger of falling off the stage. Mahler had conducted the US premiere of the work with the Philharmonic in 1909 when he was its Music Director and the orchestra has played it endless times since, the most performed of the composer's symphonies. The composer brought his score here and left it with the Philharmonic but Honeck has some ideas of his own about the score--and sent ahead his own annotated version for the orchestra to delve into before rehearsals started last week.

The Philharmonic had genuine rapport with the conductor and seemed to appreciate Honeck's mittel-european approach to the work, fully attentive to every tick of his baton. "Mittel-european" is often used in a derogatory way, to denote a stodginess in the playing of certain kinds of music (Brahms and Beethoven, for example), but the Austrian Honeck doesn't see it that way. For him, it's tradition and the result was both elegant and rousing.

In his program notes, Honeck explained the logic of expanding on details from Bohemian and Viennese music-making in his view of the score--and how his experience playing Austrian folk music on the zither and music from the Viennese tradition on the viola (in the Vienna Philharmonic) color his expectations of the orchestral performance. In the second movement, for instance, this meant that it was less a waltz than a raunchy peasants' dance with "flexible tempo modifications" a part of the picture.

The result was an exceptional, multicolored performance in every way.

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