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Symphony superb in performances of classics

| Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013, 12:40 a.m.

Pittsburgh Symphony music director Manfred Honeck returned Friday night to a packed house at Heinz Hall, where he conducted a blockbuster program of great and popular music.

Honeck, who has been busy making his debuts with the New York and Berlin Philharmonics in 2013, began with an interpretation of Modest Mussorgsky's “Night on Bald Mountain” that would test any orchestra.

The performance played to extremes of all kinds, including a tempo for the main section of the piece that was so fast it was reminiscent of Soviet conductor Yevgeny Mravsinky in other repertoire.

Although the tempo was anything but out of place for frenzied debauchery, only a great orchestra could make it work.

No doubt Honeck pushed the limit, but the orchestra rose to the occasion in many ways — and not with only stunning articulation, dynamic contrasts and impressively concentrated brass sonorities.

The end of the piece, ushered in by morning's bell, was quite slow and featured beautiful wind solos by Michael Rusinek and Lorna McGhee. Her flute tone was instantly captivating in a special way and her phrasing included nice individuality.

Russian pianist Denis Matsuev followed with an astonishing performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2. This is music written for a pianist with big sound and stunning virtuosity, and has been played by countless great pianists. Even so, Matsuev's power and velocity were jaw dropping.

Matsuev enjoys being the soloist, and if he sometimes overplayed and covered melodies he's actually accompanying, it must be admitted at other time he brought out inner ornamentation against the orchestra that is usually overlooked and provided freshness.

After intermission Honeck brought back Ludwig van Beeethoven's Symphony No. 7, a piece for which he has a particularly superb interpretation.

Honeck conducted this piece at his New York Philharmonic debut in early January. The interpretation he led Friday night was in most respects very similar to the one he led here in 2009. The energy and rhythmic focus carries all before it. His tempo relationships are excellent.

Yet there were new elements, most significantly more sustained and warmer string playing at the start of the second movement — which only served to deepen the expression without in any way losing the dignity of the feeling.

This concert will be repeated at 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Heinz Hall, Downtown. Admission is $20 to $85.

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reach at 412-320-7877 or mkanny @tribweb.com.

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