GGustavo Dudamel was appointed music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at about the same time that Manfred Honeck assumed the leadership of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Both men chose Mahler's First Symphony as their inaugural recording. But of course, it is there that the comparisons end. Dudamel's rise was -- please excuse the cliché -- "meteoric," fueled as much by publicity as his precocious and undeniable talent. After a single guest appearance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Tribune critic was ready to crown him music director of that orchestra, and later expressed his intense disappointment that Los Angeles had gotten to him first.
Manfred Honeck has done it the old-fashioned way, one step at a time. He began his conducting career (previously he was a member of the Vienna Philharmonic) as an assistant to Claudio Abaddo, then worked his way through postings at the Zurich Opera, the Norwegian National Opera, the MDR Symphony, the Oslo Philharmonic, and the Swedish Radio Symphony before becoming the Principal Guest Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, and finding a permanent home in Pittsburgh.
For Dudamel, the Mahler First seems to be a problem to be solved, a challenge to be met. One can sense him pulling and hauling the music about in an effort to master it. The performance is sometimes volatile and exciting, at other times awkwardly phrased and unconvincing. Overall, it's a young man's performance: in equal measure willful and impulsive. Honeck brings the virtue of his long apprenticeship and experience to his performance. From the hushed introduction, with its suggestion of awakening, one senses Honeck deep inside the music, completely at one with the ongoing pulse and kaleidoscopic mood-swings of its narrative.
In the first movement, the carefree ease and lilt of the opening allegro's "walking tune" flows in a completely natural way to the near fierce abandon of the final climax. The second movement is all joyous landler and rough-hewn humor, a celebration of rustic pleasures, all the more joyful for its paradisal interlude. Honeck's funeral march doesn't quite suggest the parody or grotesquerie of either Kubelik or Bernstein, but its air of nostalgic phantasmagoria suits the music very well.
Too many conductors, Dudamel among them, approach the final movement as a virtuoso display piece for orchestra, making it sound episodic, schizophrenic. Honeck's patience pays big dividends here: he's able to give full measure to the wildly contrasting moods, while building implacably to a heroic, resounding finale.
The Pittsburgh orchestra has long been one of our top second-tier orchestras. You wouldn't mistake the playing here for that of the New York Philharmonic or the Chicago Symphony or the Cleveland Orchestra -- or even the Los Angeles Philharmonic, for that matter. Nevertheless this performance is alert, committed, and intense throughout. The orchestra gives Honeck everything he asks for, and more: from delicately shaded and expressive solo work in the lyric passages to a convincing, compelling, and triumphant triple forte at the end.
This performance now joins my elite corps of Mahler Firsts that also includes Bernstein/Concertgebouw, Kubelik/Bavarian Radio Symphony (the live performance on Audite, not the studio version on DG), and Guilini/Chicago Symphony. I would probably have put it there simply for its virtues as an interpretation and realization of the music, but it also happens to be, from top to bottom, the best-sounding Mahler First I've ever heard, both in its Super Audio and Redbook formats. Recording engineer Tomoyoshi Ezaki creates a realistic perspective that misses not a moment, not a nuance of this remarkable performance.
No doubt Gustavo Dudamel will have another shot at the Mahler First in which he'll more likely than not take the full measure of the score. Until then I urgently recommend Honeck as the best all around performance available. The wisdom of experience still counts for something. Apparently this is the first installment in a complete cycle of the Mahler symphonies by Honeck and the Pittsburgh. Based on this performance, I'm willing to predict that it will compete with the very best.