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Stream review

Chicago Symphony winds return with a Mozart masterpiece

Wed Apr 14, 2021 at 2:23 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Mozart’s “Gran Partita” was performed by Chicago Symphony Orchestra members in the streaming CSO Sessions series. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

For orchestras around the world this past year, strings have been the thing.

Fourteen months into the Covid-19 pandemic, most symphonic ensembles are still not performing at full capacity, either in person or online, due to mandated health strictures and safety protocols. Instead, orchestras have attempted to fill the void by presenting chamber programs. In addition to keeping down the number of musicians onstage, these events have, by necessity, concentrated on works for strings for one obvious reason—unlike their brass and woodwind colleagues, string players can perform while masked.  

Happily, the latest episode (No. 17) in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s streaming CSO Sessions series provides some variety by giving us a large cornerstone wind ensemble work—Mozart’s Serenade in B flat, K. 361/370a, the “Gran Partita.”

In addition to his vast output in other genres, Mozart wrote a copious amount of music for winds—much of it Tafelmusik or divertimentos for social gatherings. 

But the “Gran Partita” goes beyond the lightish divertissement style of much of this repertoire. Scored for 13 instruments (pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons and basset horns alongside four horns and a double-bass), K. 361 is Mozart’s largest work for wind ensemble. Spanning seven movements, the Serenade plumbs a greater degree of expressive depth alongside Mozart’s characteristic thematic richness, varied instrumental coloring and contrapuntal ingenuity.

As with other episodes in this series, the production values were first class. The recorded performance was introduced by CSO section oboist Lora Schaefer and proved visually striking with the dozen winds arranged in a circle on the stage of an empty Orchestra Hall (double-bass player Robert Kassinger sat outside). Despite the unorthodox setup, the instrumental colors emerged clearly and cohesively as did the blended tutti sound in the final mix.

The playing was as consistently polished and superb as one could wish. Still, there is a lot going on with thirteen players and, at times, one wanted a firmer hand shaping the proceedings—as in the Largo introduction. In the first two movements, tempos were on the relaxed side, with the opening Allegro molto short on the molto.

Yet the performance gained in grip and focus as it unfolded. For all who miss attending CSO concerts in person, it was wonderful to hear (and see) such front-desk stalwarts as oboist William Welter, clarinetist Stephen Williamson, and bassoonist Keith Buncke playing Mozart with apt grace and sensitivity. Welter and Williamson elegantly floated the famous solo line of the Adagio—rarefied music which inspired Salieri’s ontological ruminations in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. 

The basset horns contributed their distinct and dusky qualities as rendered by John Bruce Yeh and Teresa Reilly. All the players brought jaunty swagger to the second Menuetto’s main theme and the inward lyricism of the Romanze was deftly contrasted with the bumptious trios. 

Rhythms could have been more incisive at times in the penultimate movement but the free-range variations were vividly characterized, and the musicians cut loose in a rollicking account of the finale, thrown off with exuberance at a crackling pace.

The “Gran Partita” program will be available through May 7.

The next CSO Sessions program presents Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. April 22-May 21. Go to cso.org.

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