News Column

Mahler's Ninth remarkably evoked by Pittsburgh Symphony

June 7, 2014

By Mark Kanny, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

June 07--The opportunity to experience Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 9 in a concert hall is a rare experience.

Friday night's concert by Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony was only the third set of concerts to offer this work in the slightly more than 100 years since it was written.

Far more unusual than the statistical perspective is the artistic experience -- a supreme masterpiece written by a composer at the peak of his powers as his life was slipping away. The Ninth is one of two pieces Mahler completed after learning that he had a fatal heart infection.

"Das Lied von der Erde" was his poetic farewell. The Ninth is uncompromisingly direct and personal, a struggle of the spirit as much as the body.

Honeck and the orchestra gave a very decisive, beautiful and powerful performance at Heinz Hall. Contrasts were heightened, as Honeck likes to do, but unexpectedly, he let the orchestra sing even when the dynamics were marked to be very soft.

The beautiful playing of the second violins near the start of the symphony, as the first main theme unfolds, was wonderfully tender and emotionally nuanced, feelings that were sensitively deepened when the first violins enter. Loud passages were not comparably nuanced, however. Fortes were likely to be as loud as double fortes.

Honeck's second movement was a brilliant realization of Mahler's grotesque version of landlers in this symphony. The third movement was also remarkable in conveying the composer's disillusionment with the bustle of urban life.

But it is the long slow movement that concludes the symphony that was the most remarkable, as it should be. The hymn music was played with tremendous depth of tone and fervor. Nor did Honeck let the slowing pace of the final page of the score cause the music's coherence to slip away.

The musicians played the difficult and exposed score extremely well. More rehearsal time might have solved some balance problems between sections, but the brass players were well balanced among themselves.

The Ninth was not Mahler's last word. There is a very good performing version by Deryck Cooke of the incomplete Symphony No. 10, which the symphony has played once.

This concert will be repeated at 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Heinz Hall, Downtown. Admission is $25 to $50, $15 for students. Details: 412-392-4900 or

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or


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Source: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (PA)

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