CSO Revives the Revolution

Soloist Emanuel Ax showcased a nuanced Beethoven Piano Concerto no. 1, a conventional work that proves anything but.

By Bryan McGuiggin

Last weekend’s program at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) was a story of polar opposites linked by a common thread. The concert featured Beethoven’s first Piano Concerto, with Emanuel Ax as soloist, and Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony under the direction of David Afkham. The pieces display their composers at different points in their careers: Beethoven, in his early period, starting to break the mold of Haydn and Schubert, and Shostakovich, at the height of his creative powers, completely in control of the groundbreaking rhythmic patterns and orchestration techniques that defined his legacy. Opposite as they seem, these pieces share a revolutionary, artistic bent.

Beethoven’s first piano concerto might seem shocking to those who are familiar with his repertoire because it is, on the surface, so conventional. The opening of the first movement is a straightforward I–V–I cadence, so we can be sure we're in C major! And the piano’s solo entrance, a textbook Classical-period double exposition, is positively Mozartean, with block chords and virtuosic arpeggiated figures between truncated hints at the main theme from the orchestra. But things get weird in the development, when we suddenly find ourselves thrust into E-flat major, with atmospheric chromatic scales in the piano. There’s no mistaking this for anything but Beethoven. And the cadenza chosen by Ax is no different. About halfway through the key shifts to D-flat—an almost inconcievable modulation for a C-major piece from the Classical period.  The second and third movements contain much of the same: straightforward material, upset by bold harmonic moves. 

Ax played with characteristic grace and charm, essential qualities for early Beethoven. Especially wonderful was his first-movement cadenza, which he allowed to wander through copious but judicious use of pedal. This technique made the orchestra’s deliberate coda entrance all the more exciting and energetic. His sound in the second movement was clear and beautiful. Slow movements of the large Beethoven pieces are very direct, and Ax handled this with agility and a clear sense of purpose. The finale was conceived with a tremendous sense of humor and the various strange angles of the rondo theme were playfully manipulated. The music danced all the way to the final chord.

Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, on the other hand, has no such surface-level conventionality. A revolutionary at heart, Shostakovich incorporated his contentious relationship with Stalin’s regime as a central theme of his music. This is most famously the case in the Tenth Symphony’s second movement, a wild Scherzo meant to be a musical portrait of the Soviet leader. The piece, propelled forward by a set of of intense ostinati and military-style snare drums, paints Stalin as violent and unpredictable. The rest of the symphony shows Shostakovich’s revolutionary style operating on a less political level, with archetypal styles—namely, the sonata form and the waltz—filled with capricious material and unexpected harmonies.

The CSO was in top form while executing the Shostakovich. Particularly striking were the wind players, who carried off Shostakovich’s exotic lines with clarity and conviction. The principal clarinet should be commended for his gorgeous, breathy sound, which added superb character to the first movement. 

Afkham also made a strong showing, communicating ideas clearly to the audience and orchestra. The former fact implied some over-conducting, which became slightly frustrating on occasion (aimlessly shaking your hand in the air during a horn solo doesn’t do any good for anybody). Nevertheless, he produced an exciting performance, worthy of these genius pieces of political and musical drama.