Performing and recording the cycle of the Mahler’s nine symphonies (plus the unfinished 10th) is irresistible to conductors of major orchestras who can persuade a record label to accept the project. No exception is Manfred Honeck, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s Austrian music director.
The Pittsburgh has a long and distinguished record of exceptional principal conductors, from Fritz Reiner and William Steinberg to Andre Previn and Mariss Jansons. Honeck has music in his genes. He was a violinist in the Vienna Philharmonic, and his brother Rainer is the leader of that distinguished orchestra. Before coming to Pittsburgh he conducted both orchestral concerts and opera in Europe. After a guest appearance with the Pittsburgh in 2006 that was ecstatically received, he was offered and accepted the post of music director of the orchestra in 2007. His contract was recently renewed through the 2019-20 season.
The matinee performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in the orchestra’s Pittsburgh home, Heinz Hall, was heard on June 8, 2014, and what a fine performance it was. Heinz Hall, opened in 1927 as the Penn Theater movie palace, and after extensive renovation it became the orchestra’s home in 1971. With a seating capacity of about 2,600, it is large by European standards, but about average by American standards. The sound is warm and rich, and in the balconies the bass is especially resonant. The sound is not as articulate as some concert halls, but the fullness and richness of the sound compensates generously for any subtle absence of detail.
Since Honeck was preparing the Ninth for recording, the orchestra was well rehearsed. The PSO has no weak sections, but the brasses are particularly distinguished, sounding dark and warm like the brass in a German or Austrian orchestra, and there is no higher praise than that. The level of virtuosity in the playing of contemporary orchestras is often astonishing, but even taking the higher standard of today’s orchestras into account, the playing of the orchestra, particularly the principal players, was exceptional. At times, for example in the Second Movement, the lyricism of the strings, even playing pianissimo, was simply wonderful. But it was the last movement that marked Honeck as a great Mahler conductor. The anguish that Mahler felt as his health deteriorated and death approached was reflected in the performance. The Ninth is the summation of all Mahler created as an artist, from the lovely lyricism of his slow movements, the massive climaxes, and the sometimes crude use of Austrian ländler themes.
I have heard only Honeck’s recording of the Mahler Third Symphony with the PSO, released in hybrid SACD format on the independent Japanese Exton label. The sound is brilliant, clear, and articulate with a huge sound stage. It is one of the best recordings of the Third I have heard. But if you want to hear the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, one of America’s finest, at its best, take a trip to Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh. It will be well worth the effort.