Romance was placed first on the evening’s roster. In collaboration with the Czech composer Tomáš Ille, Manfred Honeck’s “Fantasy Suite” picks up and newly orchestrates memorable themes from Antonín Dvořák’s sublime opera, Rusalka, much as the two have done for Leoš Janáček’s Jenůfa and Richard Strauss’ Elektra. While the Rusalka suite has met with terrific success, and broadens the exposure of select melodies in Dvořák’s extraordinary vocal music, it cannot compare with the opera itself. And while the dramatically orchestrated sequences Honeck’s adaptation contained were emotive, I missed the subtleties and greater breathing room of the original.

Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony © Priska Ketterer | Lucerne Festival
Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony
© Priska Ketterer | Lucerne Festival

Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A minor came next. The programme notes cited soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter as “an ardent champion” of the work, a tremendously demanding concerto in which her powerful fingering and characteristic vibrato were key to the performance. Virtuoso sequences at warp speed often ended in Mutter raising her bow like a bull whip, or, when her part paused, standing with her instrument in both hands before her, looking down elegiacally. Having appeared many times here in Lucerne, she showed unequivocal appreciation of the hall, the audience and the players of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; she stood for this performance, in fact, somewhat behind Honeck’s podium as if to consciously assimilate more among the other players. Regardless, she several times pushed the tempo a tad faster than Honeck directed, and the orchestra was set just slightly off base in those instances.

The concerto’s interconnected first and second movements merge seamlessly, but the third breaks out in colourful solos by a virtuoso concertmaster, oboe, flute and bassoon, even offering up a generous portion of a jolly sensationalism. Honeck conducted modestly here, limiting his movements to a simple shift of his weight and easy wrist gestures.

Anne-Sophie Mutter and the Pittsburgh Symphony © Priska Ketterer | Lucerne Festival
Anne-Sophie Mutter and the Pittsburgh Symphony
© Priska Ketterer | Lucerne Festival

By contrast, he pulled out all the stops for Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 6 in B minor, commonly known as the “Pathétique”. Granted, its third movement rises to such a resounding climax that anybody unfamiliar with the work might think it's the finale. Tchaikovsky chose instead to tip the usual model on its ear: he wrote a hugely bombastic third, followed by a quiet, elegiac fourth movement. As such, the last is often considered a premonition of his impending death shortly after the work’s première.

Jumping to the year 1964, the Pittsburgh Orchestra under William Steinberg was the very first American ensemble to perform at the Lucerne summer festival, a tradition that musical directors André Previn, Lorin Maazel and Mariss Jansons continued. And it was here in the “Pathétique” that I found the orchestra most agile, dramatically pushing the limits of sound, and ready to alternate the thrillingly bombastic with intensely intimate passages. Granted, at the start, the horns were simply too loud, but in the second movement, the refreshing vibrato imparted by some 90 players – perfectly synchronized and clearly enjoying their exercise – was as expansive as are the Alps visible from the Lucerne hall itself.

The symphony’s third movement began as if spreading fairy dust, but quickly churned up into an explosion. And in the final movement, which features withdrawal from all those fireworks, Honeck put his index finger to his lips several times to quieten the ensemble. Later, the work continued in a subdued hush with half the double basses ending in a slow pizzicato. They stopped, just as a heart would do, causing the highly moved audience to pause, before recovering its senses.