Bychkov and CSO serve up a Mahler Third, raucous and sublime
If one wanted to demonstrate how a single musical work can encompass widely varying interpretive stances, one could hardly do better than comparing Thursday night’s performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 by conductor Semyon Bychkov and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with its last Orchestra Hall outing.
Those celebrated 2006 performances, led by Bernard Haitink, were subsequently issued on the orchestra’s Resound label to wide acclaim. On Thursday Bychkov’s eruptive, at times raucous take on Mahler’s opus proved a 180 from Haitink’s scrupulous balances, elegant tone, and patient, far-seeing view.
The Third is Mahler’s longest symphony—and remains the longest in the standard repertory—with six movements spanning over 90 minutes scored for huge forces including a massive orchestra, mezzo-soprano soloist and women’s and children’s choruses. The symphony is a sprawling hymn to nature and, eventually, God. As always with Mahler, there are passing shadows in the composer’s characteristic, richly textured mix of malign marches, sardonic juxtapositions and soaring lyricism. Yet ultimately this is one of Mahler’s most optimistic works, culminating in a half-hour finale that is among the composer’s finest inspirations.
From the opening brass fanfare that ushers in summer and this epic work, Bychkov’s direction was boldly projected. The Russian conductor relied on volume and sonic thrust with playing that was hard-toned, at times to the point of being coarse, and one missed the subtly terraced dynamics and tonal refinement of Haitink.
There were also more technical lapses than one often hears. In addition to the weekly high-wire act from the CSO’s principal horn, there were errant entrances, and some surprisingly pitchy violin intonation. Even the rock-solid Chris Martin had an off night with fallible playing in the offstage posthorn solo.
While not the most polished and mellifluous Mahler 3 one will ever hear, Bychkov clearly knows what he is doing in this repertoire—as shown in his Mahler 5 here two years ago—and much of the performance was inspired and even sublime. Bychkov charted the long span of the vast opening movement skillfully, drawing unbridled playing, from the gutsy attacks of the cellos and basses to the powerful—if strident—climaxes, with the madcap whirling coda exhilarating.
The songful second movement minuet went with a delicious lilt, with the ensuing scherzo bumptious and charming. Mezzo Bernarda Fink—in her second consecutive CSO program after last week’s Missa Solemnis—brought steady tone and aching expression to Mahler’s foreboding Nietzsche setting. Bychkov’s segue into the cheerful bell tolling of children’s and women’s voices telling of heavenly joy took us seamlessly into the light.
Yet it was in the concluding slow movement that this performances rose to the heights. Mahler wrote no more beautiful music (including the Fifth Symphony’s Adagietto) than this 25-minute orchestral coda and Bychkov and the orchestra were at their finest here conveying the otherworldly peace and relaxed contentment with great sensitivity.
Several players contributed superb solo moments, including trombonist Jay Friedman, oboist Eugene Izotov and flutist Mathieu Dufour. The women of the CSO Chorus and the young singers of Anima provided effective, pure-toned singing in the fifth movement.
The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday. cso.org
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