The Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck took over the leadership of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 2008, and helped lift that ensemble out of a difficult transitional period. His tenure has been fruitful, and the orchestra has extended his contract until 2020. Beyond Pittsburgh, however, Honeck has largely built his conducting career in Europe and has only in recent seasons started making the rounds to major North American orchestras as a guest conductor. His BSO subscription debut took place in 2005 but he has not been back since then.
For his return on Thursday night Honeck was apparently not aiming for novelty, anchoring his program with Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony, but seemed intent on presenting familiar music with a clarity of vision that would make it speak freshly. If so, he largely achieved his goals in what was a thoughtfully conceived and convincingly personalized take on this most popular of symphonies.
But before taking on the “Eroica,” Honeck partnered with the German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter in Dvorak’s Violin Concerto. It’s a piece that has long stood in the shadow of the great concertos by Brahms, Mendelssohn, and Beethoven, and it seems to always require a bit of special pleading. Two years ago Frank Peter Zimmermann gave it a superbly vital performance with the BSO, full of animated tension and release. Mutter and Honeck made their own case for the concerto last year, recording it with the Berlin Philharmonic alongside smaller pieces such as the Romance in F Minor (also performed on this Symphony Hall program).
On Thursday under Honeck’s baton the concerto’s opening had the requisite heft but also a welcome forward drive and sense of urgency. Mutter, too, from her first entrance played with conviction, tonal variety, and at times a muscular brand of virtuosity. She pushed her tone in certain passages presumably to make an interpretive point. I only wish I came away with a clearer sense of what that vision was. Her playing at times felt like it was chiseling out the music rather than animating it from within. The slow movement, for instance, was full of engaging individual phrases in search of a larger expressive arc, and the connection between soloist and ensemble drifted in and out of focus. Mutter’s poise and eloquence came through vividly in the Romance that opened the program. It’s something of a rarity that’s worth hearing more often.
Honeck’s “Eroica” after intermission seemed to turn a fresh page. This conductor spent many years as a violinist in the Vienna Philharmonic and his phrasing with the BSO strings was notably well-shaped and articulate. Tempos were often brisk but also very flexible, and dynamic contrasts were dramatic. The most memorable playing came in the wisely paced funeral march, with John Ferrillo’s oboe solo seeming to distill the poetry and pathos of this movement as a whole.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com