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classical review: Honeck Offers Conducting Debut With BSO

Glorious Romantics Complement Schnittke...s ...Concerto Grosso...

By Kelley Rivoire

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Manfred Honeck, conductor

Gidon Kremer, violin

Symphony Hall, Boston

Saturday, Nov. 12, 2005

From pleasing, heroic, and romantic (as well as Romantic) to edgy, unsettling, and modern, the program performed last weekend by the Boston Symphony Orchestra provided an enjoyable mix of works by composers from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, performed solidly by the orchestra on this side.

Energetically conducting the orchestra in his BSO debut, Manfred Honeck worked past a few uneven moments early in the program to gloriously end each half of the program.

The concert opened with Beethoven’s “Coriolan” Overture, a work unusual in that it starts with a bang but ends with a whimper. The softer melodies of the piece were played with sensitivity, but in the grander moments, the orchestra seemed to the lack the perfect coordination and precision that’s expected from the BSO. Largely, “Coriolan” was more of an overture to the concert itself than at the heart of it.

The first of the two major works on the program was Alfred Schnittke’s “Concerto grosso No. 5 for violin and orchestra,” with Gidon Kremer, who gave the first performance of the concerto 1991. The concerto grosso, a throwback to the Baroque period in name, if not in content, calls for diverse instrumentation, including flexatone, tam-tam, tom-toms, vibraphone, marimbaphone, celesta, harpsichord, and, most notably, an offstage piano.

Each movement of the concerto begins with the violin soloist alone, who plays a winding, expressive line; as he rolled off the richly-textured passages, Kremer looked and sounded as though he had stepped out of a Marc Chagall painting. Kremer played brightly and incisively, the pure sound of his violin easily cutting across a complicated mesh of musical elements coming from the rest of the orchestra. Schnittke’s use of the offstage, amplified piano (played by Andrius Zlabys) to conclude each movement generated an eerie and unsettling feeling; one wonders whether the swelling notes played by an unseen hand are the voice of God — or of the Devil? Though it’s hard to give a final analysis of the concerto itself, Kremer played brilliantly throughout, as did the orchestra under Honeck’s baton.

The second half of the concert was Tchaikovsky’s popular “Fifth Symphony,” which spins Russian folk tunes into gorgeous and glorious melodies. The symphony opens with a single bassoon, quietly but surely playing a theme developed and repeated not only throughout the first movement, but to return in the fourth movement. Honeck seemed to push the orchestra, often speeding tempi at transitions, sometimes with more success than others in first movement.

The orchestra solidified a great performance into a fabulous one in the remaining three movements. The horn solo in the second movement was played with care, gently expressive. The full sound of the orchestra in the climax of the movement made clear the contrast with the infinitely softer dynamic of the opening. In the third movement waltz, each note in the playful runs fell perfectly, with first violins and violas each picking up where the other left off. The majestic fourth movement, with the return of the persistent theme from the first movement, was full of dynamic and tempo contrast and left no doubt of the orchestra’s power to thrill and excite, drawing the fervent appreciation of the audience. The symphony capped off an evening of a nicely chosen program, one that captured deeply woven textures and rich sounds, contrasting the moody tension of Schnittke with the heroics of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky.