Manfred Honeck conducted the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin in an imposing and intense programme featuring the music of three composers who are part of his musical DNA, most notably Gustav Mahler, whose Fifth Symphony provided the highlight of the evening.

James Ehnes
© Benjamin Ealovega

Hans Krása's Overture for Small Orchestra is a work of great vitality, in which the terrible impending fate that awaited the composer in the gas chambers of Auschwitz is never evoked. The DSO strings played in an extraordinarily lively and outgoing manner, integrating seamlessly with the clarinets, trumpets and a brilliant pianist whose percussive part provided an incisive, modernist contrast to the rich melodic elements. 

Mozart's Violin Concerto no. 3 in G major, featuring Canadian James Ehnes, was a relaxing interlude. Ehnes displayed the qualities that distinguish him: a pure, wonderfully golden sound, and an infallible technique. This latter allowed him to produce ethereal pianissimos and trills of indescribable purity. It was elegant and restrained Mozart, without expressive excesses, and with an Adagio that verged on the sublime, thanks to Ehnes' diaphanous sound and the subtle accompaniment, in which the flutes were especially prominent. The Allegro finale was also stunning, especially in the two separate episodes, the Andante and Allegretto, which Mozart incorporated within the rondo structure and which Ehnes and Honeck were able to bring out to the best effect.

Manfred Honeck
© Felix Broede

Without a break, there followed a Mahler Fifth that was memorable from start to finish. An intense and visionary Honeck constructed a magnificent monument of sound, in which the melodic invention and, above all, the symphonic architecture of the work shone out to the full. An impeccable entrance by the trumpet soloist and a visceral tutti gave way to a Trauermarsch that was more serene than ponderous. However, the reappearance of the march, wedged between two powerful orchestral trios, had an unsettling character, as did the chamber-like conclusion. The stormy, agitated Sturmisch bewegt movement exploited the orchestra’s virtuosity to the full, and also the acoustic possibilities of the Philharmonie, which is ideal for this kind of work. The beautiful Langsam of the cellos was a fitting haven. The great Hohepunkt of the movement, anticipating the chorale that closes the work, almost brought down the house! But there was much more to this than mere decibels; rather, it was musicality and orchestral refinement at its very best.

The Scherzo featured a young soloist, Bora Demir, a sign of the orchestra's commitment to renewal and young talent. His two epic horn calls, in which he has to go from a double ff to a quadruple pppp, were outstanding. He was joined by an electrifying orchestra, with brilliant percussion, incisive woodwinds and strings full of vigour and musicality. The division of the violins on either side of the conductor allowed the constant dialogue between the two sections to be enjoyed to the full.

The opening of the Adagietto was another magical moment, the music emerging out of nowhere. However, some of the spell was spoiled by a subtle but recurring sound interference in the hall throughout the evening (an increasingly common accompaniment in venues, due to electronic pollution). Particularly moving was the sudden double pp and the subtle glissando of violins and violas that gave way to an ineffable Molto adagio.

The Finale was a double lesson in flexibility and virtuosity from Honeck. There was an infinite range of timbral, agogic and expressive nuances, but at the same time a logical overall structure was formed, linked to the four previous movements in a coherent way. The dialogue between the three basic elements of this rondo – the Wunderhorn-inspired Allegro giocoso, the Grazioso (a recontextualisation of the Adagietto) and the contrapuntal string formed an exultant melodic framework. 

The final Pesante was august and majestic, while the Beethovenian accelerando of the coda was greeted with a unanimous round of applause and bravos. These were no more than deserved for a performance in which there was not a single gratuitous note, where every bar had a purpose and a direction, and which confirms Honeck as one of the great Mahler conductors of our time.