As some – especially European – countries gradually emerge from the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra has successfully launched a new season of its digital concert hall GSO Play. Thursday evening’s concert, streamed on the orchestra’s own website, was musically successful, despite the oddity of guest conductor Manfred Honeck bumping elbows with the concertmaster, bowing, asking the orchestra to stand to acknowledge… no applause. Although now a common sight, it is still eerie.

Peter Mattei, Manfred Honeck and the Gothenburg SO
© Måns Pär Fogelberg | Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra

The concert, lasting about 70 minutes, celebrated both Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th and Franz Lehár’s 150th anniversaries, the Beethoven symphony and the Lehár waltz framing an otherwise somber program.

Beethoven composed his Symphony no. 1 in C major when he was thirty. He was still under the influence of his teacher Haydn, but it already displays his own trademark daring in harmonic experimentation. Honeck led a performance of crisp tempos and clean textures. The second movement was graceful, while the third movement highlighted Beethoven’s dynamic contrasts. The last movement’s opening scale was slightly smudged, but once Honeck’s brisk tempo was established the GSO turned in a lithe and delightful performance.

Manfred Honeck
© Måns Pär Fogelberg | Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra

James MacMillan’s Larghetto was commissioned by Honeck for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, where he is Chief Conductor. It is an orchestral reworking of MacMillan’s choral Miserere. Stripped of its text and choral texture, the score is austere, with musical gestures echoing other MacMillan choral and instrumental works. Textures are often sparse, but build to a climax with a heterophonic passage in which the same music is played simultaneously but slightly offset in different rhythms in various instrumental sections. Solo trumpet and horn are placed away from the main orchestra in the auditorium; at the end, a solo cor anglais rises from within the orchestra. The soloists play instrumental imitations in the rhythm of chanted psalm tones, supported by long pianissimo chords in the strings. It was a beautiful performance of an arresting work.

Manfred Honeck, Peter Mattei and the Gothenburg SO
© Måns Pär Fogelberg | Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra

Peter Mattei is a peerless Mozart singer, and in recent years he has expanded his repertoire with roles as diverse as Amfortas and Wozzeck. But the sheen of his voice, his sensitivity to text and suavity of delivery were very much in evidence in his reading of Mahler’s four Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, with texts by the composer and musical references to his First Symphony. Mahler’s beloved source for texts, the Wunderhorn poems, are never far from mind in these songs. Mattei coped with the sometimes high tessitura (especially in the second song) perfectly. The texts were sung precisely, and in the third song Ich hab' ein glühend Messer (I have a red‑hot knife), there were several phrases in which his singing was mixed with declaimed speech, like the Sprechstimme of Wozzeck. The fourth song ended subdued but sorrowful. Honeck and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra were always attentive accompanists.

Franz Lehar’s waltz Gold and Silver was composed for Princess Pauline von Metternich's "Gold and Silver" Ball, January 1902. It is a wonderfully frothy Viennese concoction, stylishly led by the Austrian conductor, the perfect ending for a splendid concert.

This performance was reviewed from the video stream.