Haitink returns to Chicago with Schumann, Mozart and Brahms

Schumann, Mozart and Brahms: Emanuel Ax (piano), Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink (conductor), Symphony Center, Chicago, 28.5.2011 (JLZ)

Schumann : Overture to Manfred, Op. 115

Mozart : Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major, K. 452

Brahms : Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98

Upon his return to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, venerable conductor Bernard Haitink was greeted with applause by both the audience and the musicians. This set the tone for an engaging program, beginning with Robert Schumann’s Overture to Manfred, which exists chronologically between the other two works. Not unfamiliar to the CSO, the Overture was a good way for the ensemble to reacquaint itself with the conductor. While some of the attacks in the strings were not as precise at the beginning as they were later, the intensity increased as Haitink brought out Schumann’s implicit drama. Among the challenges a conductor faces here are dense textures, requiring a master like Haitink to bring out certain timbres. Some of the trumpet passages (in the lower part of their register) sounded uncharacteristically ambiguous, and this is not a comment on the section’s otherwise fine efforts. Additionally, it was unfortunate that some of the delicate passages were interrupted with audience sounds from various parts of the hall.

With Mozart’s well-known Piano Concerto No. 17, the audience had the opportunity to hear a work that the CSO did as recently as March 2010, with Mitsuko Uchida playing and conducting. Haitink brought out some of the symphonic elements, as evident from the beginning of the first movement, as well as the contrasts between orchestra and soloist, with Emanuel Ax contributing extroverted playing. While the second movement seemed somewhat labored, that was not the case with the Finale, which evinced a relatively more spontaneous style. The final movement was memorable in the masterful interplay between Ax and the ensemble, with woodwinds notably rich and cohesive.

At the core of the program, Brahms’ Symphony no. 4 received a fine interpretation. While the brass sometimes overbalanced their colleagues in the first movement exposition, the strings were solid and the structure had coherence, with Haitink bringing out the architecture without giving the impression of being overly studied. Yet the second movement stood out for its exemplary reading and thematic contrast with the first. Haitink highlighted the middle section, beautifully anticipating the reprise of the opening. The third movement was similarly thoughtful, with phrasing that audibly helped to bring out the formal structure. Here and there the horns had some awkward notes – unfortunately such things happen now and then. Yet as in the rest of the concert, Haitink ultimately triumphed: within the overtly formal final passacaglia that ends the piece, he allowed the bass theme to become subsumed within the orchestration, giving the Finale welcome subtlety and finesse.

James L. Zychowicz