Beefy Excitement from David Robertson and the CSO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Hindemith, Beethoven, and Rachmaninov: Emanuel Ax (piano), Chicago Symphony Orchestra, David Robertson (conductor). Symphony Center, Chicago, 26.5.2012 (JLZ)

Hindemith: Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber
Beethoven: Piano Concerto no. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 “Emperor”
Rachmaninov: Symphonic Dances, Op. 45

Part of its “Keys to the City” celebration of the piano, this Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert included three pieces demonstrating the intersection between orchestral and keyboard music. Hindemith used themes from some of Weber’s music for two pianos in his Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber, while Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances is also known to audiences in the version for two pianos.

At the center of the program was Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, the composer’s final contribution to the genre, in an exciting performance with soloist Emanuel Ax. David Robertson allowed the rich colors of the modern orchestra to have unstinting full voice, and overall Ax’s phrasing and Robertson’s shaping of the orchestral passages were impressive. The ease and command of the piano Ax brought the first movement was matched with Robertson’s masterful conducting, eliciting a burst of tenuous applause at the end. Robertson acknowledged the interruption, then resumed, with a slow movement appropriately supple and leading directly to the finale. In the excitement both soloist and orchestra sacrificed a few individual notes, but these minor problems were dwarfed by the outstanding interpretation—a powerful conclusion to the first half.

The concert opened with the Hindemith Symphonic Metamorphosis, performed with brilliance. In the first movement, Hindemith’s use of various instrument choirs demonstrated the orchestra’s consummate artistry. Robertson accentuated Hindemith’s careful scoring, and allowed the thematic content to unfold convincingly with careful attention to tempos and pacing. Based on Weber’s music for Gozzi’s play Turandot, the second movement makes use of pentatonic sonorities—here resonating nicely in the hall. The percussion section was particularly effective, especially the concluding passages, when the theme dissolves into rhythmic phrases and individual sounds. In the third movement, the lush harmonies emerged effortlessly. Flutist Matthieu Dufour gave stylish expression to his solos, contributing to an idyllic effect. Robertson gave the final movement a finely conceived reading, with clear textures, precise entrances and full sonorities, and elicited an enthusiastic response from the audience.

The program concluded with Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances in an equally strong reading, especially the first movement. Pianist Mary Sauer, a longstanding CSO member, was effective in the solo passages and gave a hint of the composer’s two-piano version. The rich scoring adds alto saxophone to the woodwinds and brass. The middle movement, a stylized waltz, was enhanced by the Robert Chen’s playing and the CSO’s fine strings. In the final movement, Robertson incisively brought out the various melodic and thematic strands, and clearly articulated Rachmaninov’s self-quotations—as masterfully as if the composer himself were on the podium.

James L. Zychowicz