NTSO’s Unfinished

featuring Rainer Honeck

Undetermined, Unfinished, but Undeniably Excellent

This is our second visit to Taipei this weekend from a member of a European ensemble, after Stefan Dohr Friday.

Back in the day, a few centuries ago, a soloist leading the orchestra from his piano/violin/cello was the norm. It’s interesting every once in a while to see that tradition come back in the concert hall. We had a similar event last year with the NSO and the exceptional and intense Kolja Blacher, actually already almost a year ago. He played and lead the Brahms concerto and then Beethoven’s fourth. It was thrilling both to see and hear.

Tonight, we had Rainer Honeck, concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic, and brother to conductor Manfred Honeck, lead Taiwan’s oldest symphony orchestra, the increasingly wonderful NTSO. There are only two (sets of) occasions where I’ll see them. It’s either because they’re playing a Mahler (or Bruckner) symphony and I’ll hop on a train down south, or they come to see us in the north, and I’ll really go see them regardless of what they’re playing if that’s the case. The improvement in the caliber of their playing over the past few years has been remarkable, and it’s a joy to hear a concert like that.

Tonight on the program, as the concert’s title suggests, is an incomplete work, but preceded by an earlier one of dubious origin. The program lists Haydn’s second violin concerto, with no catalogue number or Hob. VII anything (it never helps anyway) or even a key, but some Googling will show you that there’s no little confusion about this work. Was it Franz Joseph Haydn, or his (now) neglected brother Michael? Wikipedia lists the work as ‘lost’, but other sources say a manuscript was found in 1909. It’s some Haydn concerto or other, and the ensemble reflected the era: no winds, no percussion, small compliment of strings, and a harpsichord.

It was a wonderful ‘history lesson’ of a program, with the sparse but elegant, diaphanous sound of all manner of strings. It’s a bit early for my taste to be honest (you don’t see a lot of Haydn or his contemporaries on the blog, do you?), but very fine playing.

After those three movements came a bigger ensemble. Harpsichord disappears and we get a whopping four winds: two horns, two oboes. This is the fifth and last of Mozart’s violin concertos (not including the E-flat major work, now understood to be from the pen of Johann Friedrich Eck), the ‘Turkish’ one, written when he was a wee lad of 19. It doesn’t show.

In listening to a polished performance of any Mozart work, like we had this evening, I remember reading what Olivier Messiaen said about the beauty of Mozart’s work and its ebullience and freshness, that it lies so many times in the rhythms he chooses to use. The work unfolds elegantly and beautifully. Mozart, Honeck, and the NTSO behaved for two movements, cadenzas and all, but when that ‘Turkish’ theme appears in the finale, things got wild, or as wild as they get in 1775. It’s sumptuous, exciting, exquisite music, and as with all Mozart, there’s nowhere to hide anything that isn’t perfection, but thankfully tonight, there was no need to. Solid performance all around.

Honeck is tired, and doesn’t give any encores. I don’t mind that.

The piece whence comes the title of this concert, though, is obviously Schubert’s eighth, his tragically unfinished symphony in B minor. Listening to the Hosokawa piece this past Friday, there was unfortunately much audience contribution in the form of coughs. I can’t remember who it was but someone has said before that if an audience is coughing, they’re not captivated.

Likewise, if the music allows your mind not to wander but to process, to be lost in thought about the music, then it is at least of a certain minimum level of excellence. Hearing Schubert’s fantastic eighth tonight, I was yet again fascinated by the sounds you hear in this man’s music of Mozart and Beethoven, looking back, but also forward, to Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler… What if this man had lived another 15 years, even 5 years? What would we have had? I feel the ninth is such a grand work of triumph and tragedy, but the eighth, in its power and grandness, is tragic in its own way, that that’s all we have of it, much like Schubert himself.

I don’t know anything about R. Honeck’s conducting career, but he certainly knows his way around this piece. The delicacy and roar were all there, finesse and fury. The piece builds so well, makes so many promises about the journey the composer intends to take us on, and then…. stops.

I suppose that presents some manner of interpretive challenge for the piece, but the two-movement form is also a strong one, acting rather as two sides of the same coin. All the high points you want in a work like this were there, the tinge of melancholy and tragedy, the dirge-like strings that open the work… With a smaller ‘arc’ of sorts and only two movements, that finale has to be very convincing, and sure enough, Honeck held the quiet, heavenly end to the second movement in the air, like a moment of silence for what what could have been the rest of the eighth.

But it wasn’t the end of the concert, oh no. I should have seen it coming, either in musical conception or on the performers’ stands, but in a rare move, Honeck leads a whole-orchestra encore, announcing “another Schubert” his overture to Rosamunde. While it’s not the entr’acte that Newbould suggests might be associated with the symphony, it’s close enough, and was kind of a fun, light close to round out what would have otherwise been a slightly diminutive concert program.

But it was a wonderful one. With the three pieces in chronological order, the ensemble grew with each new piece, finally reaching the grandeur and heft of what some people consider to be the first Romantic symphony, and in retrospect, we can hear the first foregleams of Schubert’s future countrymen. Concertos are also always a wonderful treat for first-timers to the ensemble, especially when they’re still eight years old (and outstandingly well behaved!), and you can’t help but be drawn into Schubert’s writing.

That’s it in the concert hall for almost three weeks, but that’s okay. My next two concerts are enormous ones, and I have been looking forward to them for many months. See you soon.


One thought on “NTSO’s Unfinished

  1. “Back in the day, a few centuries ago, a soloist leading the orchestra from his piano/violin/cello was the norm.”

    I know! I love this image.

    “Listening to the Hosokawa piece this past Friday, there was unfortunately much audience contribution in the form of coughs.”


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