If there is a silver lining to Riccardo Muti’s cancellations, it has been the caliber of substitutes the administration has been able to book on short notice – be it a newcomer making a memorable debut or a welcome return of a favorite guest conductor.  This week fell into the latter category with the Pittsburgh Symphony's music director Manfred Honeck on the podium. Honeck’s appearances in recent years have consistently been season highlights, and the people of Pittsburgh can certainly count themselves fortunate to have such a major talent. The program was neatly divided between two composers with a pair of works by Respighi presaging Tchaikovsky’s dramatic Sixth Symphony.

Manfred Honeck © Felix Broede
Manfred Honeck
© Felix Broede

Respighi’s Fountains of Rome is the earliest of his enduringly popular Roman trilogy, as well as the most subdued. Cast in four interconnected sections, this tone poem draws a vivid picture of four of Rome’s iconic fountains at different times of the day. The coloristic opening “Fountain of Valle Giulia at Dawn” was marked by an especially strong wind section with Stephen Williamson’s clarinet a particular standout. The peaceful atmosphere of dawn was abruptly broken by sunrise over Bernini’s Triton Fountain with a shining brass ensemble painting a rich tapestry. In the ensuing depiction of the Trevi Fountain, the Victory of Neptune is celebrated with a solemnity to match that of a mighty Roman statue. Finally, we end the day at the fountain of the Villa Medici with touches of harp and flute from guest Christina Smith of the Atlanta Symphony creating a wonderfully atmospheric and seductive portrayal of an evening in Rome.

This was the second consecutive week to feature a CSO principal as concerto soloist and it is always a welcome opportunity to hear the musicians of this ensemble in this capacity. Venerable concertmaster Robert Chen took the spotlight in the same composer’s rarely heard Concerto gregoriano. Chen’s concerto appearance is an annual affair, and he is to be commended for exploring the less-traveled byways of the repertoire. Respighi was first introduced to Gregorian Chant by his wife Elsa, and this had a profound influence on him and marked a major stylistic shift, although he certainly had a penchant for appropriating the music of Italy’s past as crystallized by the Ancient Airs and Dances. Whereas Berlioz and Rachmaninov vividly used the Dies irae in an unmistakable manner, in Respighi the chant melodies and gestures are much more subtly absorbed into the work through a seamless osmosis.

The opening measures were dominated by an oboe solo from another guest wind player, Frank Rosenwein of the Cleveland Orchestra who had an impressive showing. Much of the violin writing in the first movement is impossibly high, yet Chen’s intonation was spot on, the ethereal beauty of his playing evoking a spiritual musica mundana. The movement closed with an extended cadenza delivered commandingly without becoming ostentatious. Stentorian brass characterized much of the second movement which has the most obvious indebtedness to chant, yet altogether recast to take full advantage of the resources of the modern orchestra. Mary Sauer’s celesta was particularly effective here; while it’s an instrument that postdates chant by several centuries, it hardly felt anachronistic as matters were so harmoniously blended.

The hymn-like peroration of the finale’s Alleluia wouldn’t sound out of place in Dvořák’s New World Symphony. While much of the work was reduced to chamber-like orchestration, the coda rallied the full force of the orchestra to bring things to conclusion. A committed performance of an attractive if not altogether convincing work. Chen gave an encore in the Largo from Bach’s C major Sonata, which he dedicated to Pierre Boulez; gorgeously played, it was a beautiful tribute.

Muti had originally intended for the program to be capped off by Alfredo Casella’s Third Symphony in what was supposed to be an all-Italian evening. With Honeck however, the opportunity to hear this forgotten work had to be forfeited and Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique was offered instead, marking the third consecutive season the CSO has programmed it. In spite of this, there was little room for disappointment as Honeck is almost unique in his uncanny ability to make even the most familiar works sound afresh, and his Pathétique stood amongst the finest.

To recount the performance play-by-play wouldn’t do it justice, so I’ll stick with some general impressions. The main theme of the first movement truly soared, imbued with just the right amount of idiomatic rubato. The gentle, lilting waltz movement provided contrast to the passion of the first, and the scherzo, taken at a frenetic pace, was an overwhelming display of orchestral power and virtuosity. Despite the explosive energy of the preceding, the mournful finale was – and rightfully so – the dramatic heart of the work.