United States Paganini and Bruckner: Robert Chen (violin), Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Riccardo Muti (conductor), Symphony Center , Chicago, 23.6.2012 (JLZ)
Paganini: Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 6
Bruckner: Symphony no. 6 in A major
In the concluding concerts of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 2011–2012 season Riccardo Muti conducted two works: Paganini’s First Violin Concerto and Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony. While the two pieces are overtly unrelated, both benefited from the CSO’s mastery of tone and sense of ensemble. The Paganini Concerto, a work composed in 1816 and premiered in 1819, demonstrated the extraordinary technique of CSO concertmaster Robert Chen, who executed this bit of virtuosity with finesse and aplomb.
After the first movement’s lengthy introduction, Chen’s entrance immediately commanded attention, using riveting tone, well-considered articulation and acute sensitivity to the contrasting themes. In the pages that followed, he allowed the pyrotechnics to emerge with consummate musicianship. Despite some of Paganini’s dense scoring, Chen’s line stood out and he brought the movement to a brilliant conclusion.
In the central Adagio, the solo violin was the focus, and Muti’s careful leadership allowed Chen’s playing to emerge easily in this contrasting delicate movement, yet Chen achieved an effective rapport with his string colleagues where appropriate. And in the Finale, the overt dynamism was the result of the synergy between soloist and orchestra. Here Chen’s virtuosity emerged in a variety of techniques that he used with panache.
The program concluded with a rare performance of Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony. Less familiar than the Fourth, Seventh and Eighth (programmed in recent seasons), the Sixth warrants attention when performed by an ensemble of this caliber. A work of Bruckner’s maturity, it has the composer’s familiar four-movement structure, distinguished by melodic invention and imaginative orchestration. As an aside, this piece received its premiere posthumously in 1899 under the direction of Gustav Mahler, with the Vienna Philharmonic, who from all reports gave it a masterful reading. Similar artistry was evident here.
The first movement’s sonata structure showed cleanly articulated phrases and attention to the distinctive rhythms. The brass blended effectively, and some initial pitch problems were quickly worked out. In the slow movement, the strings were richly prominent, emphasizing the elegiac character. Likewise, the fine performance of the Scherzo was extroverted, with notable contributions from the woodwinds in the Trio.
The CSO’s reading of the Finale brought the work to a fitting conclusion. At times though, the brass—specifically the trombones—seemed too strong. This wasn’t surprising, given the conductor’s efforts to restrain the strings, which actually could have benefited from an even fuller sound in some passages. But these momentary imbalances didn’t detract from the overall effect, which was impressive—a winning reading of the Sixth, and one that would benefit from repeat performances, especially given such sensitivity to the work’s details.
James L. Zychowicz