February 8, 2002

The sound of silence: CSO plays Beethoven, inaudibly

Stravinsky, "Jeu de cartes";

Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 3;

Brahms, Symphony No. 2

Gianluca Cascioli, piano;

Daniele Gatti, conductor;

Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Symphony Hall

January 31, 2002

There is a new fashion among intellectual pianists. I call it the "pianissimo fetishism." It works as follows: the intellectual pianist wants to distinguish himself from crowd-pleasing virtuosos and prove to his audience, nay, to eternity, that he is the true source of musicality, he alone the true evoker of the great geniuses of the past. In his lonesome struggle, he feels very much like a romantic. He therefore reads the romantics. He especially reads Keats. Keats says, "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / are sweeter." Taking Keats by his word, he cultivates the art of silence. His tone must be fragile throughout, his sound hardly heard, his every note sounded so that it immediately dies away into timeless realms, his performance never cease to remind the listener that true genius defies the here and now.

If this story sounds vaguely familiar, it is because this pianissimo fetishism is nothing really new at all. It goes back to Mr. Romanticism himself, Frédéric Chopin, of whose playing critics frequently said that they couldn't say much, because he simply played too quietly for them to hear. Neither could we really hear young Italian intellectual pianist Gianluca Cascioli in his long-awaited orchestral debut with the CSO Thursday night. Throughout the performance Cascioli shyly rested his hands in his lap, returning to his cowering position after each phrase, as if the piano were a wild animal that he wanted to tame with near-inaudible pleas. Throughout, he emphasized the lyrical qualities of the work, such that even its more triumphant passages sounded wistful, evoking only the shade of a lost heroism of the past. Beethoven's Third Concerto as a grand elegy? Sure enough, why bother to concede to the piano's menacing opening lines their true forceful grandiosity, if all is vain anyway? Why even give the semblance of defiance and rebellion in the slow second movement, if we all must wither away, eventually, not with a bang, but a whimper?

Interpreting Beethoven's concerto in such a way has its advantages, especially when coupled with an orchestral accompaniment like Gatti's, which was as fine-tuned and sensitive as one could wish for. Namely, it has the advantage of highlighting aspects of the work that one doesn't usually hear in such detail. Still, Cascioli's account was highly ambiguous, and, I would even say, annoying, and not only because his tone did not carry enough weight to stand on its own against the orchestra. I only want to point to two problems in his playing, one of expression and one of style. First, Cascioli reintroduced a forgotten mannerism that has vanished out of performance practice long ago, and for good reasons: namely, the habit of playing chords so that the left-hand bass is sounded just before the soprano of the right. This habit disappeared along with the pianists of the romantic tradition that we can still hear on records made in the first half of the 20th century. Today, it is considered bad taste, simply because it undermines any sense of stability of a melodic progression, and because it draws the attention to the caprice of the performer rather than to the music itself. This was exactly the case in Cascioli's account of the second movement, which was full of false originality and false expressivity, and made the piece almost impossible to listen to. Second, it seems to me Cascioli is still very much searching for his own authentic means of expression and for the moment is stuck between styles. Specifically, moments of a post-romantic legato approach (perhaps in the tradition of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli) stood next, and unconnected, to episodes of the kind of witty staccato playing that many young pianists of today prefer (names like Mustonen, Fellner, or Zacharias come to mind), which is ultimately connected to Glenn Gould. Not that a performer would necessarily have to decide between the two — the distinction between a legato and a staccato approach itself is extremely vulgar and cannot elucidate the complex considerations that go into every interpretation. However, these diverging moments would at least have to be mediated and thus integrated into a larger, meaningful whole. With Cascioli, one felt that he has yet to develop his own approach to a large-scale work like this. The talent is definitely there, and idiosyncrasy never hurts. Indeed, it is the substance out of which all greatness is made, as long as it displays itself in true originality and not in warming up old mannerisms.

When Cascioli, a mere 16 years old, recorded his promising and eclectic first CDs, he was already compared to masters like Maurizio Pollini. His debut with the CSO revealed too little of that original promise. That said, we can only hope that this performance was only the expression of a momentary and transitional artistic crisis, one that will see Cascioli emerging more mature, more original, and ready to lead piano music into the 21st century.

But let us not forget about conductor Daniele Gatti, a fine musician in his own right. Like many performers of his generation (that is, the generation after Barenboim), he favors a slim, transparent orchestral sound that makes all voices heard, and his tempi are usually more on the swift side. Under his experienced hands, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra had once more the opportunity to shine forth in their unique glory, and once again it was principal flutist Mathieu Dufour who stood out especially with his glorious sound. Gatti's pieces of choice were Stravinsky's "Jeu de cartes," and Brahms' Second Symphony, the former a light-hearted neo-classical ballet, the latter a work of high romanticism.

Stravinsky's "Card Game," which comes in three movements, or "deals," is a delightful little piece, one that is mainly concerned with inventing all kinds of orchestral colors as it imitates and mocks waltz and march rhythms and ironically quotes half of music history from Beethoven to Tchaikovsky. Interestingly, it climaxes in a parody of the third movement of Mahler's Second Symphony, which is itself, of course, a parody. And it is another matter of (more unfortunate) irony that this metaparody shows in this work that Stravinsky had little to say that went beyond Mahler in original ways. Not a work of great substance then, but Gatti played it with fine understatement, again a very transparent orchestral sound, and made fine use of the CSO's great rhythmic precision.

Brahms' Second is, of course, an entirely different matter, and as such a much more challenging work to conduct. Idyllic and pastoral as it may seem, there is plenty of internal tension, struggle, and melancholy in the piece. Any adequate performance must come to terms with the dark aspects of the work, and not try to diminish them for the sake of a kind of banal musical easygoingness. In general, Gatti expertly rose to the occasion, opting for fluent tempi throughout, most noteworthily in the Adagio, the highly contrasting episodes of which he was thus able to weave together ingenuously. In the finale, he displayed an equal capacity for understanding large-scale processes. Taking the concluding allegro con spirito in one long breath, as it were, he masterfully controlled the energy of the piece, and thus brought the piece to a sweeping finish, carrying us all away with his sheer excitement. At times, I wished for closer attention to detail, such as in that crucial passage in the opening of the first movement, when, almost immediately after the first theme begins to unfold, the music already dies away in a descending line of the violins, making way for some ominous trombone chords, answered fearfully by the flutes. Here, Gatti was too nondescript and forwent some of the expressive potential of the work. Yet his overall approach was more than satisfying, and his inclination to bring out orchestral textures in their full contrapuntal richness — once again relying on the CSO's magnificent woodwinds — made this musical portrayal of nature a highly delicious one to listen to.

This was, then — in both positive and more ambiguous ways — another stimulating evening with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. For more thought-provoking musical nights at Symphony Center, keep in mind that Hilary Hahn, the young superstar of the violin, will play Shostakovich's First Concerto on February 12. Moreover, Ingo Metzmacher, one of the leading proponents of 20th-century music today, will conduct a program of Ives, Beethoven, Haydn, and Hartmann, the weekend after. For student ticket availability, best call (312) 294-3000 a few days before the concert. And, as always, more information awaits you at