On Saturday with our beloved Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the evening opened with Scottish composer James MacMillan’s “Woman of the Apocalypse.” “Apocalypse” was inspired, by images of many artists such as Dürer, Rubens and Blake, of a mysterious woman described in Chapters 11 and 12 of the Book of Revelation—and taken by some to represent the Virgin Mary.
In his scoring for strings and brass, one seems to hear the flowing of immense tears and the increible power of the dragon that attacks the Woman of the Apocalypse. Combining the harsh and the bliss, the elegant and the evil, the piece sweeps in one movement across about 30 minutes, outlining five phases of the great battle.
Most impressive is MacMillan’s writing for brass, especially for trombones and tuba. At the middle of the work, his shifting brass proclamations from one half of a lengthy back-and-forth dialogue with the percussion section: unusual and curious forces thundering at each other from a vast area. Honeck and the orchestra might have benefited from another rehearsal to bring all this detail and prestige into focus, but MacMillan’s characterization of ascension was impassioned, even so.
Next, our fabulous concertmaster, Noah Bendix-Balgley, displayed his recital/chamber music skills with Beethoven’s Romance No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra in G major, and Romance No. 2 for Violin and Orchestra in F major. Bendix-Balgley displayed sheer security from beginning to end of his performances of significant challenges. His technique never wavered. His capability to give his instrument eloquent tonal characteristics was ideal. His inclination for shaping and fashioning stunning sounds was distinct. His musicianship, the quality to achieve a path to each work that suited, was unequivocal.
In all that he did, Bendix-Balgley had the extraordinarily perceptive assistance in our beloved Pittsburgh Symphony who understands when as in Beethoven Romances to be the accompanist and when to become an equally important star. Bendix-Balgley graced us with an encore of Bach’s Gigue from his D minor Partita No. 2. Saturday’s program featuring Bendix-Balgley was a nice chance to hear him once again before he leaves the symphony to be the first concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic.
The evening closed with Johannes Brahms Symphony No. 4. Honeck opted for a slender, exacting sound, which is greatly structured and highly energetic. In all subjectivity, once you start listening, nothing can distract you from following it all the way to the end. His tempi are fast, and the thrilling climaxes—the coda of the first movement, for instance—are embossed and imprinted with the tremendous intensity. The final passacaglia movement is plainly remarkable: Brahms marks it “allegro energico e passionate”, and that’s exactly what it comes as. Honeck’s grasp of the architecture ensures a colossal compelling effect. German musicologist Philip Spitta said that the second movement of Brahms’s four was the greatest slow movement in all of the symphonic literature, and I quite agree.