The Pittsburgh Symphony pulled all the stops in last weekend’s season finale, pairing two of the most resplendent works in the literature – Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto and Berlioz’s massive Te Deum. On the podium was Manfred Honeck who added to the weekend’s sense of occasion in marking his now decade-long tenure as music director. Emanuel Ax served as a choice soloist in the Beethoven concerto, capping off the PSO’s presentation of the composer’s five works in the medium.

Manfred Honeck © Felix Broede
Manfred Honeck
© Felix Broede

The majestic E flat major opening of “The Emperor” saw Ax commanding in its virtuosic flourishes, this being music so deeply ingrained in his DNA. The orchestral exposition was deftly balanced, indicative of the fine accompaniment Honeck drew from the musicians. In spite of the concerto’s exuberance, Ax was keen to emphasize its introspective moments which were all the more affecting with his rippling, velvet touch. Still, this was in no way to the detriment of the more extrovert passages, for instance the imposing chordal section midway through the first movement which erupted with volcanic vigor.

Heavenly strings with guest concertmaster Amy Schwartz Moretti at the helm opened the slow movement, and Ax entered with an acutely judged delicacy of tone, teasing so much depth out of simple scalar passages. In the ingenious transition to the finale, the rondo theme was obliquely hinted, in due course galloping away at full throttle. This ebullient energy was maintained until the music came to a sudden standstill near the end, a moment of calm before the final dramatic fanfare. By way of an encore, tenor Paul Appelby – soloist in the subsequent Berlioz – joined Ax in Schumann’s Widmung, achieving a remarkable intimacy after the grand concerto.

The PSO has a history dating back to 1895, yet last weekend marked its first time performing the Berlioz Te Deum. Joining the orchestra – and filling the stage of Heinz Hall to the brim – were the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Youth Chorus, impressive ensembles in their own right and largely comprised of volunteers. The Te Deum opened with a monumental energy (even if the substantial forces at hand weren’t quite the 950 performers at the work’s première under the composer’s direction at Saint-Eustache), punctuated by shattering blasts in the organ and intricate choral writing, delivered with impressive clarity in spite of the brisk tempo. A stentorian brass section was an imposing entity, while more intimate moments offered stark contrasts of texture.

Tibi omnes began with a pensive passage from the unaccompanied organist (whom the program books inexplicably neglected to credit), answered by an angelic choir. The movement built to dramatic power, with crashes on no less than four sets of cymbals teetering dangerously close to bombast, only to conclude with a peaceful postlude in the strings. The Dignare, the first of the six movements to be marked prière rather than hymne, was a solemn affair with a richly flowing melody. The ensuing Christe, Rex gloriae, however, was exultant in its brassy extroversion and the punchy snap of dotted rhythms, while a solo from Appleby provided a more lyrical foil.

A largely introspective movement was had in the penultimate Te ergo quaesumus, another prière of restraint amidst the extravagance, highlighted by Appleby’s extended solo which powerfully projected overtop the orchestra. The concluding Judex crederis, one of Berlioz’s most impressive creations, began arrestingly in the organ. Honeck cut through the thick of its labyrinthine depths, proceeding with clarity and dignified purpose. A passage scored for snare drums added a martial layer to the kaleidoscopic color palette, and the final moments left one breathless in its stunningly glorious conclusion.