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Symphony gives Mahler masterpiece expert treatment

| Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Sound is the medium of music, but the vision that animates Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2 creates a transcendent experience that traverses life and death and leads us to heaven. It expresses the composer's Roman Catholic faith in resurrection with universal appeal and irresistible musical power.

On Friday night, Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, along with two outstanding vocal soloists and the Mendelssohn Choir, gave an exalting performance of Mahler's masterpiece at Heinz Hall.

Unlike all other BNY Mellon Grand Classics concerts, this program will not be repeated over the weekend because the orchestra departs Monday on a European tour featuring Mahler's “Resurrection” Symphony, which will be recorded in Vienna.

Honeck conducted magnificent performances of Mahler's Second in 2009 at Heinz Hall. This performance was on an even higher level, making full use of the orchestra's growth under his leadership and demonstrating unmistakably the conductor's own growth.

The first movement, called “Totenfeier” (Funeral Rites), quickly showed Honeck's increasing differentiation of musical characters. The movement is highly dramatic and was performed with tempo contrasts and transitions entirely in line with reports of Mahler's conducting. Some lyrical sections were slower than before, achieving a purity of feeling that touched the heart in special ways.

Honeck also more sharply differentiated the different kinds of ländler dances in the second movement, again with more generous lyricism. The third movement, like the second based on landler, also featured a wonderful variety of emphasis in the upbeats.

The stroke of a gong ends the third movement, followed directly by the song “Urlicht” (Primeval Light). Mezzo-soprano Gerhild Romberger made it live, with meaningful diction allied with depth of tone.

Honeck was especially successful in conveying the immensity of space in Mahler's vision of the road to heaven. Some of it was placement of instruments, such as the wind ensemble Mahler asked to be separated from the orchestra and which was played from backstage. But Honeck also conjured a feeling of immensity by the way musical ideas answer each other.

The stages on the journey were, as in the earlier movements, very well contrasted. Honeck wove all the elements into a charismatic performance. The joy with which the music flew to meet the “Die shall I in order to live, rise again” always maintained its vision beyond death due to Honeck's astute pacing and conviction.

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877.

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