Two soloists enliven a tepid Strauss night from de Waart, CSO

Fri May 16, 2014 at 2:15 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed a program of mostly late works by Richard Strauss Thursday night.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed a program centered on late works by Richard Strauss Thursday night.

Richard Strauss’s music has been an integral part of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s history from its earliest years, with Theodore Thomas and the CSO giving the U.S. premieres of Till Eulenspiegel, Also sprach Zarathustra, Don Quixote and Ein Heldenleben. That storied tradition continued under Frederick Stock, Fritz Reiner and Sir Georg Solti.

So, with that historic a Strauss lineage, it’s a bit baffling to find so little of the German composer’s music being performed by the Chicago Symphony in the 150th anniversary year of Strauss’s birth. This week’s CSO program is pretty much it this season, offering a sort-of nod with an all-Strauss program composed largely of his late masterpieces.

This week’s concerts have been bedeviled by not one but two artist cancellations. First, the ailing conductor Vladimir Jurowski pulled out, to be replaced by Edo de Waart. Soprano Dorothea Roschmann then canceled because of laryngitis, and Susanna Phillips was called in as a substitute.

Gratitude for a conductor subbing on short notice was mingled with disappointment at the uneven, often tepid performances under de Waart Thursday night. Fortunately, the evening’s two gifted soloists saved what was otherwise a pretty dismal evening.

Susanna Phillips had performed a well-received Schubert recital with bass-baritone Eric Owens this past Sunday when she was asked to perform in Strauss’s Four Last Songs. These late settings (to three poems by Hermann Hesse and one by Joseph Eichendorff) are among the finest works of Strauss’s career and the jewel of his post-war productivity. In addition to showing his lifetime of mastery writing for soprano voice and orchestra, these beautiful songs face death with a reflective maturity and simple eloquence that are all the more moving for the complete lack of sentimentality.

Susanna Phillips sounded a bit tentative and underpowered in the first two settings Fruhling (Spring) and September, even with de Waart keeping the balances congenial. Daniel Gingrich lofted a beautiful horn solo in the second song.

The soprano came into her own with Beim Schlafengehen (Going to Sleep). Phillips conveyed the autumnal expression, rendered with a close sensitivity to the text, her voce taking flight in the soaring phrases, aided immeasurably by Robert Chen’s burnished and affecting violin solo. The soloist rounded off the set with deep feeling in Im Abendrot (At Sunset) conveying just the right note of accepting solace.

In his most convincing conducting of the evening, de Waart scaled down the large orchestra to benefit his soloist, and textures were well balanced apart from a jarringly overloud celesta at the coda of September.

One expected the frighteningly consistent Eugene Izotov to turn in a first-class performance of Strauss’s late Oboe Concerto and the CSO principal did not disappoint. Izotov was fully in synch with this late concerto and his seamless breath control, fluent articulation and tasteful musicianship brought out the relaxed reverie and playful wit delightfully.

It’s too bad he didn’t have a more sympathetic colleague on the podium. The final movement brought some belated vigor but for the most part De Waart’s slack and poky accompaniment kept the performance earthbound, with soft attacks and a fatal lack of vitality.

De Waart has successfully recorded Strauss’s complete music for wind ensemble on Phillips, including the Serenade in E flat written at age 17. So, it was baffling to hear the performance of Strauss’s youthful Serenade, which opened the evening. Metrical, ill-blended and charmless, the teen Strauss’s caprice felt much longer than its seven minutes.

Worse still was the ensuing performance of Metamorphosen. This threnody for 23 solo strings is one of Strauss’s most personal works, mining a Beethoven theme into an epic yet intimate dirge for the destruction of Germany at the end of World War II.

For someone of de Waart’s presumed Strauss credentials, hearing this deep, eloquent and tragic music rushed through so insensitively by the conductor with such little feeling, intensity, or expressive detailing was surprising and appalling. For all the detachment and lack of connection with the elegiac essence of this work, de Waart’s soulless traversal might as well have been about the elderly composer musing over which tea to have with his lunch.

Robert Chen brought a spare fragility to his violin solos and the CSO strings played with their usual polish and professionalism but the grim faces spoke volumes about this disconnected performance.

Isn’t it past time for the CSO to hire an assistant conductor in order to insure that a solid and dependable podium substitute is available in the case of cancellations and emergencies? The wildly uneven results of this week’s concert should renew conversation on that subject.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday. cso.org; 312-294-3000.

Posted in Performances


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