Mahler had a number of things to say about tradition, not least his claim that it is “the handing down of the flame and not the worshipping of ashes”. He, together with Bartók and Martinů, were citizens of the vast and sprawling Austro-Hungarian Empire, rubbing shoulders on a daily basis with dozens of other ethnic minorities that made up the social mix. For much of their creative work, all three, like countless others, drew on the rich heritage of folk music stretching back to time immemorial.

Manfred Honeck
© Felix Broede

Manfred Honeck, who served for many years in the Vienna Philharmonic, playing inter alia under Carlos Kleiber, whose influence on his own body language is unmistakeable, is part of this Central European tradition. His soloist Frank Peter Zimmermann in this NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester programme has recently recorded both of Martinů’s violin concertos, long neglected by concert promoters and artists. It was good therefore to hear him play the Suite concertante, a work which was not heard in any part of Europe for 50 years after its US premiere during World War 2. Its form harks back to the instrumental traditions of Baroque music. In the opening Toccata Zimmermann never allowed the motoric energy to overly dominate, teasing out the lyrical moments with ease. Though Martinů has plenty of Paganini-like pyrotechnics for the violin in the final two movements, it was the noble Aria that stood out. Here, with its neo-classical repose, graced by Zimmermann’s impeccable tuning and fine singing line, the 20th century was reconnected to the past.

Earlier, Zimmermann had underlined the importance of Hungarian dance tradition in his performance of Bartók’s Rhapsody no. 2 with the typical pattern of slow-fast movements that made up the verbunkos or recruiting dance of the time. 

I suspect that a lot of preparation had been devoted to this performance of Mahler’s First Symphony. Honeck’s own playing background was evident in the quality of the strings, compact and yet powerful where necessary, but both woodwind and brass – the gleaming trumpets especially – also excelled. Those sustained high-octave As, with which this work emerges seemingly from the mists of time, were beautifully whispered. However, the following bird calls were much too loud in comparison: this was an aural jolt to the senses, with slightly sleepy strings slowly stretching their limbs in the early-morning air being harried by wide-awake woodwind. Elsewhere, Honeck’s fondness for very flexible tempi and marked rallentandos – the performance came in at just under an hour – meant that stasis often replaced what should have been a constant flow. This was an unduly protracted awakening.

NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester
© Michael Zapf

On the other hand, I have rarely heard such an earthy, foot-stamping quality to the Ländler, the lower strings behaving almost like pouter pigeons. Here there was joyous energy in abundance, recalling in its evocation a centuries-old tradition of peasants’ merrymaking. In the slow movement there was no lack of characterisation either, the klezmer elements given vibrant expression as a foil to the measured tread of the obsequies. Once again though questions of balance surfaced when the steady heartbeat of the timpani obscured the opening double-bass solo.

It was in the Finale, however, that my doubts about the impressive technical control of the orchestra began to intensify. Honeck’s approach sometimes short-changed the emotional undercurrents in the score. Mahler would not be Mahler without a feeling of heartache, those recurring bittersweet moments where longing, often expressed in searing and soaring string lines, comes face-to-face with reality. Honeck did not stint on the big, bold and brass-laden climaxes but I wish he had permitted his heart to rule his head a little more.