Rach 3? What Rach 3? Sibelius shines under Elder and CSO

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra performs “The Water Goblin,” Dvorak’s symphonic poem; in the same performance, pianist Garrick Ohlsson takes on Rachimaninoff’s “Third Piano Concerto.”

By John Lisovsky

Sir Mark Elder’s concert with the Chicago Symphony  this past weekend had  a fine architecture: A charming but otherwise unremarkable Dvorak symphonic poem led to Rachmaninoff’s thrilling Piano Concerto No. 3, and, after the intermission, to Sibelius’s sublime First Symphony. The works were placed, so far as I can tell, in order of interest, though Rachmaninoff’s being some six minutes longer than Sibelius’s made the first half of the concert (which also included the 20-minute Dvorak) top-heavy.

The Water Goblin, which made its CSO premiere on Thursday, is an oscillation among moods and tempi, chosen, I presume, for its showcasing of the CSO’s estimable brass section, which it did superbly. Antonin Dvorak wrote the piece quite late in his career, in 1896, and it’s a musical rendering of a gruesome poem by K. J. Erben, a Czech historian, poet, and writer. The work, which follows the plot of the poem carefully, feints toward being facile in its early parts; however, as it moves along, it affords the orchestra some truly luxurious string playing for which the Symphony fired on all cylinders.

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, like the first piano concerti of Liszt, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky, has a number of extraordinarily demanding passages that need to be played at a swift tempo to render their full effect. Pianists like Martha Argerich, Vladimir Horowitz, and Sviatoslav Richter have given us superb examples of some of these concerti—I must recommend, as I did last spring, the Horowitz (1930) and Argerich (1982) interpretations of Rachmaninoff’s Third. Quite apart from powers of interpretation, when a pianist doesn’t have the physical strength to blast through, for instance, the final run down the keyboard, the interpretation begins to feel, for lack of a better word, a bit elderly.

Garrick Ohlsson, at the risk of being ungenerous, was what I might call a poor man’s Alfred Brendel. At 64, he certainly has behind him a commendable career, but his performance on Saturday had multiple errors and, at times, some difficulty staying together with the orchestra (though the fault here could also have been with Elder). Unfortunately, this shortcoming was not married to an interpretation so vital as to void the memory of Lugansky’s extraordinary performance of this same piece last season—it was, despite some charming instances of local color, an essentially flat reading that checked all the boxes but was otherwise forgettable. The orchestra, too, seemed subdued during the Rachmaninoff in a way it was not throughout the rest of the concert. There was no encore.

Jean Sibelius’s First Symphony was far and away the highlight of the evening, written as the composer was coming to terms with Richard Wagner’s influence on him. (A superb production of Wagner’s only comedy, Die Meisersinger von Nurnberg, is playing at the Lyric Opera through March 3—do not let the memory of the Lohengrin disaster two years ago keep you away.) After hearing Parsifal and the Der Ring des Nibelungen at Bayreuth (and Tristan und Isolde in Munich) in a single summer, Sibelius felt that the operatic form was not ultimately for him, and the symphonist threw himself into composition of the first of seven symphonies in 1898. Indebted to Anton Bruckner (perhaps the most passionate devotee of Wagner) and Tchaikovsky, his style is a more sophisticated example of the same lush late Romanticism that Rachmaninoff practices. The CSO’s brass was no less on top of its game here than in the Dvorak, but Sibelius’s piece, which favors the winds and strings, was easily the best showcasing the woodwinds have had since the New Year. Elder’s reading of the Sibelius was just as incisive as that of Shostakovich’s First Symphony eleven weeks ago, and by the end had wiped Rachmaninoff’s most flashy piece from my memory entirely.