This week’s SFS debut artist, cellist Truls Mørk (from this week’s SFS event page)
Yesterday afternoon in Davies Symphony Hall saw both the return visit of Manfred Honeck as San Francisco Symphony (SFS) conductor and the debut visit of cellist Truls Mørk as concerto soloist. Strictly speaking, Mørk was soloist in a composition that Sergei Prokofiev called a “Symphony-Concerto,” his Opus 125 in E minor; and it did not take long to appreciate that this was “not just another concerto.” Indeed, the scope of the piece was such that it filled the entire first half of the program, which was then balanced by a performance of Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 88 (eighth) symphony in G major, the only piece in the second half.
Prokofiev’s Opus 125 was dedicated to cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who gave the premiere performance on February 18, 1952. The conductor for the occasion was Sviatoslav Richter; and the Wikipedia page for this piece cites this concert performance as “the only instance of Richter conducting.” At the premiere the piece was presented as Prokofiev’s second cello concerto. However, Prokofiev made some revisions after the premiere and gave the piece the title by which we now know it.
That change, however, was definitely justified. The piece is scored for rich instrumentation to back up the solo cello part, and Prokofiev was as adept at exploiting the full extent of available orchestral sonorities as he had been in many of his symphonies. Nevertheless, the solo “concerto” part is anything but an augmentation of the symphonic resources. Indeed, it is so challenging that, when it was first performed, many cellists dismissed it as unplayable; and one reason why we do not encounter this piece more often may well be that quite a few cellists continue of be shy of it.
Mørk, on the other hand, is definitely not one of those cellists. He had no trouble meeting every technical demand that the score imposed on him. Furthermore, under Honeck’s direction, both the soloist and all of the instrumentalists contributing to the rich fabric that score had no trouble appreciating that all of those notes were supported by a solid infrastructure of wit. Many of the gestures disclosed a subtle sense of playfulness; but some of them were flat-out belly laughs. Indeed, during the final movement, when some listeners may have thought that Prokofiev was beginning to run out of new tricks, he introduced a string quartet of first-chair players to provide the soloist with yet another textured accompaniment.
The Dvořák symphony, on the other hand, was probably an old favorite with much, if not all, of the audience. It was first performed by SFS in October of 1930 and was most recently led in Davies by James Conlon near the end of the 2015–2016 season. While the instrumentation was more modest, Honeck seemed to present the score in a manner that would complement the first half of the program in spirit, if not in details. His approach was as energetic as it had been in his performance of Prokofiev’s Opus 125, and I am sure that there were many who found his treatment of Dvořák’s dynamics more than a little extreme. However, for every episode that would roar forth as if inspired by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, there would be a complementing episode in which the music was only barely audible. If Honeck was extreme, it was in his sure-handed command of an awesomely wide breadth of dynamic levels.
Most importantly, however, was that, even when the music was at its most energetic, Honeck never let things get out of hand. One was easily convinced that he was aware of what every individual in the ensemble was doing and approached the performance as an ongoing fine-tuning of the many details he wanted to make sure would not escape the attention of the serious listener. Regular readers may know of my annoyance with conductors who prefer to bathe in the sounds they evoke (a metaphor I have joyfully appropriated from the music critic Julius Korngold), rather than maintain a sure hand in guiding the flow of those sounds. Honeck’s guiding hand could not have been more certain in his command of Dvořák’s Opus 88, making this week’s offering in Davies an early candidate for one of the most memorable concerts of the season.