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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Concert Review: Storming the Cathedral


The Chicago Symphony Orchestra plays Schumann and Brahms.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Yefim Bronfman on tour in Hungary.
Photo by Andrea Felvégi.
Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra are known for careful programming choices. Take Saturday night's concert. The second of three dates this past weekend at Carnegie Hall, this program featured what is at first glance a thoroughly conservative pairing: Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2 (with soloist Yefim Bronfman) and Schumann's Rhenish Symphony, numbered as his Third but actually the troubled composer's final symphonic work.


The Brahms Second is one of the most challenging piano concertos, a four-movement marathon inspired by the composer's sojourns to Italy. It places great demands on conductor and soloist. And yet, it is also a genial creation, with an opening horn call that leads to a lyric outpouring for the keyboard soloist. Mr. Bronfman and Mr. Muti got right down to business, with the superb Chicago horns supporting the piano part, and the pianist charging, shoulders squared into the complicated early cadenzas that yield much of the following melodic material.

With this beachhead established, Mr. Muti led his forces into the development of those ideas, a combination of form and imagination that allowed orchestra and soloist to shine. The second movement is the "extra", a "wisp of a scherzo" (Brahms' words) that allowed Mr. Bronfman to storm up and down the keyboard, combining a pleasing singing tone with stunning technique. The major-key trio section was memorable here, played with plush and sweet tone.



The third movement of this work contains some of Brahms' most inspired writing. Here, the solo cello sings a lovely duet with the keyboard over a gentle backdrop, a nocturnal mood that builds to another contrasting section, this one stormy and anguished. The final movement, a high-speed bacchanal with frenzied dancing and Eastern European rhythms, brought the work to a joyous and thrilling finish.

If the Brahms concerto masks new ideas in a classical cloak, then the same could be said for Schumann's extraordinary Symphony No. 3. Like Beethoven's Sixth, the "Rhenish" (as it is known) is built on five movements instead of the usual four. It also follows Beethoven in depicting the natural world through music: in this case a travelogue of the composer's beloved Rhineland.

The noble brass and sturdy woodwinds sang the opening theme, lifting their voices above a landscape of strings. Mr. Muti stirred his orchestra in the heaving figures which seem to indicate the rushing rivers of the Rhine, an idea that would later inspire one Richard Wagner.

Two short movements followed. The dance movement was a loping ländler that seemed to predict Mahler's future fondness for the form. A small slow movement followed, bringing to the winds to the fore and again recalling early Wagner.

This set the table for the main feast, a depiction of an 1850 coronation ceremony beneath the hallowed arches of Cologne Cathedral. This is Schumann's most famous orchestral movement and generally is a thrilling piece to listen to, especially with the majesty of that massive church in mind. However, this performance, while filled with sonorous brass and rich strings, never achieved that peculiar quality of ignition that makes this movement fly. The finale was better,  with the solemn trombones repeating the "Coronation" material to good effect.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.