Manfred Honeck and Frank Peter Zimmermann with the Rotterdam Philharmonic at De Doelen

Another one of those concerts which demonstrates that the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra can lure some of the world’s best to Rotterdam. I recently heard Frank Peter Zimmermann playing under the great Christian Thielemann at the Salzburg Easter Festival, with an emphatic performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. Now, Zimmermann has come to Rotterdam with a signature piece of his, particularly close to his heart: Martinu’s second violin concerto, written by Martinu for the great Misha Elman. The piece is more classically set that many violin concertos of its time (Szymanowski, Stravinsky and others).

But before we delve into Zimmermann’s wonderful solo efforts, conductor Manfred Honeck takes the stage to perform one of his signature pieces: The suite from Rusalka, arranged by himself. He goes through all of the great episodes from Dvorak’s most popular opera, paying beautiful homage to the famous song to the moon in a lovely violin solo. Honeck was originally a violinist at the Vienna Philharmonic, and only started conducting a couple of decades ago. But in this piece, you realise why a post in one of the world’s best orchestras was no longer enough to Honeck. This man breathes musicality.

In all his interpretations tonight, Honeck masters an interesting dualism between the ultra soft, deep German sound, and the tradition of Viennese transparency he was born into. It is a testament to his previous work as an orchestral musician, that he manages to transmit his vision to all the orchestras he is working with. The beginnings of the string passages are soft. The strings are impressive as a mass, but the woodwinds are never completely drowned out. In the rhythmical passages of the piece, the orchestra has a few difficulties with Honeck’s complicated, but truly bohemian demands in terms of tempi. Nonetheless, this  is a good start to the concert.

Martinu’s second violin concerto presents us with a completely different sound spectrum. Frank Peter Zimmermann takes the stage for a piece that takes the Dvorak and seems to put it through the washing machine: Melodies are not as clear, the orchestral sound is muddied and the overall impression is much more modern, expressionist and even atonal at times. Zimmermann is playing (once again) on his beloved Lady Inchiquin Stradivari and puts a large amount of work into making this piece digestable. His bowing work is characteristically thought-through, particularly his attention to detail makes the interpretation work: In the second movement, Zimmermann plays a short cadenza, made up only of dissonant triads, played slowly and in piano. His genius instinct for making simple music great through his unique violin sound makes these triads into a highlight of the night. The third movement of the concerto goes by in a whoosh, with dissonant, but much more rhythmical melodies and another breathtaking cadenza.

Zimmermann then surprises with an interesting encore (actually the same one he played in Salzburg a few weeks ago). The entire hall holds its breath to the modern sounds of Bartok’s Melodia, Zimmermann masters the tricky flagolee passages like the world-class artist he is.

Finally, we hear another one of Honeck’s core works after the interval: The Eighth Symphony by Dvorak, an eternal classic. Dvorak wrote it in America, under the impressions of his homeland, and so ardently wishing to go back. In the first two movements Honeck and the orchestra still have not found their ideal line, but they are way on the way. The interpretation is intelligent, but lacks transparency. The interpretation is intelligent, but lacks transparency. Several sections don’t properly coordinate, particularly during the louder passages. This also leads to some rhythmical problems: The bohemian rhythms of Dvorak’s music are particularly intricate, based on folk music from that region. The second movement is not really your usual withdrawn adagio, but actually runs much louder. Here, Honeck tries to cache over the difficulties in the more intricate passages by raising the dramatic effects.

But it is in the third and fourth movement where Honeck really excels, proving that he is one of the great conductors of today. And the orchestra follows him without abandon, putting all of its brilliant musical skills on full display. The third movement becomes something remarkable under Honeck’s baton: Something you would not be surprised to hear in the Vienna New Year’s Concert. Honeck gives the rhythm a remarkable treatment, slowing it down at climaxes and making them ever more potent without being cheesy. The beauty of this music sounds genuine, without any post-romantic questioning. That is an incredible feat. Honeck also puts his skill in the “German” smooth sound to good use, when the orchestra goes to the pianissimo where you don’t expect it, as the characteristic G-major rhythm begins once again. I have heard this symphony several times, both live and on record, and this is the first time that this movement has sounded like a wonderful dance.

In the fourth movement, one thing stands out to me besides all others: Honeck has conducted a lot of operetta. If you don’t conduct operette, you don’t get this divine touch for melodies, repetitions, rhythmical intricacies, and all the other difficulties of what is often wrongly described as “light music.” In fact, it is incredibly difficult. Honeck makes all of the difficult melodic transitions and flows in this movement feel incredibly easy, as though they were simply just meant to be there this way. And that takes serious skill and experience, which you really can only get from conducting operetta, from dealing with these hilariously difficult melodies on a regular basis. The way Honeck forms the melodies in the celli for example, the way he builds in a beautiful ritardando in the flute solo, the way he emphasises repetitions in a different way from their premieres. This is a divine touch to this music, which you will hear from few conductors in this piece today.

Besides his unique melodic touch, Honeck’s operetta experience also shows in how he deals with the orchestra in the realm of dynamics and transparency. He constantly works to bring specific instrument groups, especially the woodwinds, to the forefront when they have important solos. But he also takes in that accent from the strings which you have never heard in that passage before, finds things in the score that you only know when you have conducted a piece like this as often as Honeck has. With the rhythm from the third movement; the melodic skill and dynamic persistence from the final movements, Honeck leads the orchestra to an epic climax which literally rips you off your seat. A final (again, new and never-heard) loud flourish from the timpani concludes a great high of music. This is an interpretation that I will not soon forget.   Yannik Eisenaecher    24th May 2019

Yannik Eisenaecher is the publisher of the blog FreshEarsClassics