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October 3, 2003

Disappointing but nuanced performance marks CSO's return home

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra held their unofficial opening concerts last weekend, having just returned from a successful and critically-praised residence at the Lucerne Music Festival. Their homecoming last Thursday coincided with the untimely death of Edward Said, long-time friend and "soul mate" of director Daniel Barenboim. The performance that evening was apparently a rather impassioned one, according to a Chicago Tribune review. Unfortunately, Thursday's concert may have been a particularly cathartic event, as Saturday's performance did not live up to the same billing.

The program consisted of two works written less than 20 years apart and with strong musical ties as well: Brahms's Piano Concerto No. 2 and Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht. Yet there are important contrasts. The monumentality of the Brahms concerto stands as a colossus at the end of a long tradition, or rather at the end of many traditions, as the work strives for mastery in an encyclopedic nature. In contrast, in Schoenberg's tone poem, the sense of ending is never as strong as a wanderer in search of romantic affirmation might want it to be. We are left like the couple in Dehmel's poem of the same name (by which the work was inspired), having embarked on a confusing, mystical resolution on some transfigured, perhaps brave, yet highly uncertain path through the same night they began.

Unfortunately, this conscious waywardness was often missing in Barenboim's rendition, although waywardness certainly surfaced in other forms. The account was very concentrated, passionate, and moving; the form of piece in its large brushstrokes was palpable and comprehensible, which is an accomplishment given the structural complexity availed by Schoenberg. Yet the strong directionality at times was overbearing. There are many poignant, melodic lines, which are built on dissonant notes that do not resolve, but instead invite the listener to hear a line which is never fulfilled but still audible. Hearing also seemed to be a problem in the orchestra. An early reviewer once described Schoenberg's work: "as if someone had smeared the score of Tristan while it was still wet," and the performance indeed sounded this way. The soloists sounded as though they were encountering and stumbling over each other in the dark night, and one was tempted to speak of "transfigured intonation."

The concert was slow to pick up after intermission, but was worth it once it did.

The first movement of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 was rather uninteresting; Evgeny Kissin, and by extension Barenboim, seemed at times bored with the long, expansive movement, their performance far from the heroic intensity that apparently occurred on Thursday. Because of this lack of energy, the shining moments of the movement, while beautiful unto themselves, where not allowed to resonate within the whole of the piece. One such shining moment was the recapitulation, which evokes an alpine imagery as the main theme emerges from an immense landscape and then the splendid rising piano figuration points to the breaking though of sunlight.

Things got going better in the second movement, although the overall vision remained rather confused. The pulse seemed halfway between the crisp, sharp sound of such fiery scherzos as that of the C-minor Piano Quartet, Op. 60 and the heavy, even brutal orchestral sound of a Beethoven scherzo. The real value of the movement, however, was that it got enough blood flowing to prepare the listener for the sublime austerity of the third movement. The Andante, as well as the following Allegretto, have a chamber feel that serves as a refreshing antidote to the monumentality of the former two movements, and the soaring cello line of the third movement is not unlike that of the Op. 60 Adagio. Indeed, Brahms's brilliant move was to let the pianist accompany the lyric cello instead of indulging in sentimental showmanship, as Rachmaninoff would later do. The first piano entrance is essentially and solely a coda figure, an afterthought to the sublimity of what has come before, unlike the often brilliant entrances that attempt to steal the show away from the orchestra. The coda figure is only later developed, but never so much that it takes from the structure of the movement.

Only by the third movement had Kissin and the orchestra achieved satisfactory coordination, and this continued in the fourth movement. The Allegretto is a beautifully sculpted response to the sublime third: the only way for the concerto to end is with a dance that is a series of small miniatures. Kissin allowed for a wonderful parlor feel to permeate the movement, showing incredible delicacy in handling the lilting piano line. The finale, while avoiding the raucous overtones of the Hungarian Dances and Academic Festival Overture, does give way to emotional outbursts (Barenboim perhaps intruded too much in these places: it is never good when you can hear his groans above those of the audience), but these moments are again drawn back: the effect is an understatement similar to the recapitulation of the first movement. The secondary theme was especially effective: a sweeping sentimental line, whose momentum, in its development, was allowed to be simultaneously brought to a halt, so as not be swept away in naïvely rhapsodizing strain. One is reminded of T. S. Eliot's line from Four Quartets: "At the still point, there the dance is, / But neither arrest nor movement."

The orchestra's official opening gala, with champagne and tickets only affordable to those who most likely should not have them in the first place, takes place on October 18, when wunderkind pianist Lang Lang will return to Chicago to perform the first Tchaikovsky's concerto. The concert will also feature Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony, and the orchestra will continue its obsession over the course of the following week by playing both the Fourth and Sixth. The most enticing offer at Symphony Center in the near future is Mahler's Ninth, to be played this weekend and then again next Friday, although those who wait for the latter date will have to forgo hearing late Beethoven performed by the Emerson Quartet in Mandel Hall.