Dutoit pushes reset and the CSO responds with magnificent Beethoven and Britten

Fri Nov 09, 2012 at 12:44 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Charles Dutoit led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music of Britten, Walton and Beethoven Thursday night at Symphony Center.

Charles Dutoit couldn’t have arrived in town at a more opportune moment.

After the rough-and-not-so-ready performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra last week, it was fortuitous that the Swiss taskmaster was here to reset the machine and get the CSO back on track.

That he did in characteristically firm and impressive fashion, and, indeed, Thursday night’s performances brought some of the finest playing of the season from the orchestra across all departments.

Certainly, the gleaming and terrific performance of Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra offered the ensemble an ideal chance to shine corporately and individually with every principal—even harp and tuba—getting a moment in the solo spotlight.

Written for an educational film in 1946 (and right after Peter Grimes), Britten’s clever orchestral showpiece hasn’t been heard at Orchestra Hall since Sir Georg Solti conducted it in 1978. This is a wonderful work that transcends its tutelary origins and Britten’s finest nonvocal work for orchestra (granted, there aren’t many). Dutoit treated Britten’s large-scale set of variations with all the care and attention he might bring to La Mer, with acute balancing and sure transitions that deftly brought out the wit and humor of the work. The CSO members contributed faultless individual solos and the finale with the Purcell theme reprised by the brass over the wildly scurrying strings was majestic and exhilarating.

William Walton wrote his Violin Concerto for Jascha Heifetz, and it is the most openly bravura of his three concertos for string instruments, with ample, tortuously difficult fireworks for the soloist.  The 1939 concerto (revised in 1943) is fully characteristic, with Walton’s brand of astringent nervous energy giving way to sudden bursts of touching lyricism. Amazingly, the Walton concerto hasn’t been played by the CSO since concertmaster Sidney Harth performed it under Jean Martinon in 1964.

Gil Shaham

This is music that fits Gil Shaham like a well-tailored glove. The violinist must be on an English kick having performed the Britten concerto in Boston last week. While this is not an easy work to pull off Shaham delivered a vital and engaging performance that provided the finest possible advocacy.

The Urbana-born violinist blended the mercurial elements masterfully with the quick gear-shifts between songful passages and fireworks fluently assayed. Shading his tone, Shaham brought an affecting intimacy to the rhapsodic moments, transitioning seamlessly to bristling intensity in the bravura pages. The accompaniment of Dutoit and the orchestra was on the same polished level of corporate virtuosity as their soloist, and the enthusiastic applause for all was well deserved.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 was performed by the CSO just seven months ago on the same stage but there’s always room for this warhorse when played with the kind of fire and conviction Dutoit and the CSO brought to the piece Thursday night.

From the opening chord, you knew this was not going to be just another Beethoven traversal. Dutoit led a crackling performance, forcefully projected yet polished to a fine gleam and rhythmically exacting. The Allegretto was shaped with consummate skill by Dutoit with fine gradations of dynamics and seamless diminuendos that never sounded pedantic. The whirlwind finale was notable as much for the clarity of articulation as the relentlessly rhythmic impetus and Dutoit ratcheted up the intensity inexorably to a thrilling coda.

This was one of the CSO’s finest Beethoven outings of recent seasons with superb playing across the board. Especially notable were oboist Eugene Izotov and the CSO horns, unshackled this week from their hapless principal, which soared magnificently in the outer movements.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. cso.org; 312-294-3000.

Posted in Performances


One Response to “Dutoit pushes reset and the CSO responds with magnificent Beethoven and Britten”

  1. Posted Nov 09, 2012 at 7:41 pm by Dave

    I couldn’t agree with your review more. After last week’s disappointing CSO performance, this week featured the orchestra at its best. The execution was absolutely fantastic, as was the leadership of Charles Dutoit in all three works. I left the hall feeling truly appreciative for such an exciting and moving experience. I can’t wait to hear what Dutoit and the CSO achieve together next week.