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Winter fire: Kozhukhin, van Zweden and CSO heat things up with Russian program

Fri Dec 15, 2017 at 1:40 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Denis Kozhukhin performed Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 Thursday night with Jaap van Zweden conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Denis Kozhukhin performed Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 Thursday night with Jaap van Zweden conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

With the downtown temps dipping below freezing again Thursday night, it wasn’t too difficult to set a Russian atmosphere for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s populist program of cornerstone works by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff.

Jaap van Zweden was back on the podium and had ample reason to look pleased. Just 48 hours earlier the Dutch conductor was in New York at a press conference to announce that the New York Philharmonic had raised a cool $50 million. Not a bad welcoming gift for van Zweden, who takes the reins as the Philharmonic’s music director in the fall of 2018.

Yet as worthy as van Zweden’s direction of the CSO was Thursday night, the evening belonged to Denis Kozhukhin, solo protagonist in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

The 31-year-old Russian pianist has been impressive in his previous CSO stands and his solo turn in Rachmaninoff’s beloved Romantic warhorse was his finest yet.

His wasn’t a note-perfect performance with a couple fleeting moments of muddied passagework. But Kozhukhin largely played with such innate authority, leonine command and poised yet unsentimental lyricism that he didn’t seem to be “interpreting” the music at all. Rachmaninoff’s long-limbed melodies were rendered with a supple poetic touch and natural empathy as much as Kozhukhin’s clarity and eruptive dynamism vaulted through the passages of breakout virtuosity.

The performance culminated in an exhilarating finale that led up to the final bars with mounting inexorability–the movement’s big tune given with rich resplendence in its final flowering and the race to the coda thrillingly played by Kozhukhin, van Zweden and the orchestra with their soloist every step of the way.

This was one of the rare times when the instant cheers and standing ovation were well deserved. The applause recalled the pianist back to the stage until he obliged with an encore–“La fille aux cheveux de lin” (The girl with the flaxen hair) from Book I of Debussy’s Preludes, rendered with limpid delicacy.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 remains an ineradicable part of the concert hall repertoire, just as much as the concerto that preceded it Thursday night. Yet while the brooding and dramatic Rachmaninoff seems to only gain in value with the years, Tchaikovsky’s symphony wears less well, for all its popularity and melodic distinction. It’s hard to disagree with the self-critical composer who felt there was something slick and superficial about the final movement even with its surface excitement.

Still, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth is an undeniably effective piece in the right hands, and such was surely the case Thursday night. Jaap van Zweden’s quickish tempos made for a reading of driving urgency with a hint of rawness at times as in the raspy horn attacks, that let an apt sense of edgy desperation to the proceedings.

The orchestra was at their considerable finest collectively and individually, with Daniel Gingrich floating a plangent, rounded horn solo in the Andante. The finale was off at a quick pace with the march-like main theme’s buildup to to the triumphant coda as blazing and energized as one could wish.

The evening led off with the Prelude to Act 1 of Wagner’s Lohengrin. If there was a rather steely luminosity to the violin tone–the unfortunate byproduct of the post-renovation acoustic–van Zweden led a concentrated, beautifully played performance that rose to a serene yet majestic climax, the acute dynamic marking and musical integrity making up for the lack of ecclesiastical glow.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.; 312-294-3000.


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