Conlon, Connolly, and Cox Combine for an Evening to Remember

United StatesUnited States Schubert, Mahler: Sarah Connolly (mezzo soprano), Richard Cox (tenor), Chicago Symphony Orchestra / James Conlon (conductor). Symphony Center, Chicago, 31.3.2017. (JLZ)

Schubert – Symphony No.8, ‘Unfinished’, D.759

Mahler – Das Lied von der Erde

In one of the finest concerts of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra season, conductor James Conlon gave two masterworks interpretations that made each seem fresh.

Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony had the perfection of a studio recording. Conlon allowed the exposition to unfold with slight modifications in tempo as the thematic materials took shape. Conlon gave the chordal interjections a percussive quality, while maintaining the lyrical structure of the movement. Those qualities were equally important in the second movement, which had the intensity of chamber music. Entrances were smooth and articulations appropriate, with clear voicings of chords.

The second half was devoted to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, which Conlon has conducted at Ravinia and elsewhere, and his mastery was evident. Each movement had its appropriate shape, with distinctive details. Always attentive to the line, Conlon gave equal elegance to the orchestral interludes.

Sarah Connolly showed deft, persuasive touches in her phrasing of ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’. The third stophe was memorable and suggestive of the elegiac quality that she would bring to ‘Der Abschied’. Her low range was appropriately resonant and clear. In ‘Von der Schönheit’, Connolly gave a lively interpretation, paying attention to rhythm and enunciation, despite the middle section’s bustling tempos.

But in the final ‘Der Abschied’, her phrasing made the difference. In this single movement — as long as the five that precede it — the challenge is to maintain the line within a song of symphonic dimensions, and Connolly met those challenges with aplomb. After the crucial lines ‘Still ist mein Herz und harret seiner Stunde! / Die liebe Erde allüberall blüht auf im Lenz und grunt / Aufs neu!’, her repetitions of ‘ewig’ were memorable.

Richard Cox was equally strong (stepping in for an ailing Stephen Gould). Cox’s lyricism was always present, even in the more stentorian passages of his three songs. In the first one, the passionate outcry of ‘Ein Aff’ist’s! Hört ihr, wie sein Heulen / Hinausgellt in den süßen Duft des Lebens!’ showed the métier of a heldentenor, while other passages had the intimacy of a lieder singer. His phrasing always underscored the line with ease and accomplishment, making him a tenor to watch.

The Chicago Symphony gave an intensive reading to the score. Responding to Conlon with rapt attention, from the resonant lyricism in the Schubert, to the sometimes pointillistic passages in the fourth and fifth movements of Das Lied von der Erde, all forces combined for an incredibly powerful evening.

James L. Zychowicz

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