Conductor Labadie fails to strike sparks with CSO in monochrome Mozart and Haydn.

Wed May 27, 2009 at 10:42 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Bernard Labadie conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Wednesday night.

After nearly fifty years of historically informed musical performance, the traits that have enlivened 17th and 18th-century repertoire are as common as death and Chicago taxes: lightly bowed strings, intimate sonorities, fleet tempos and sparing vibrato.

Bernard Labadie is a superb and convincing advocate of period practice in Baroque repertoire, as his performances with several orchestras and recordings with his ensemble, Les Violins du Roy have shown. But while an authentically-centered approach may pay great dividends in Baroque music, the same qualities alone are not enough to guarantee similar success  in Classical-era repertoire.

Such was the case Wednesday night when Labadie’s program of Mozart and Haydn with a chamber-sized Chicago Symphony Orchestra produced decidedly lackluster results.  At best, the performances were facile and energetic; at worst, inflexible, poorly balanced and surprisingly rough around the edges.  

Labadie employed the usual period- performance suspects in Mozart’s Symphony No. 39. But while outwardly trim and vital, the lack of expressive depth, tonal shading and supple phrasing made for a rather aerated Baroque-style Mozart. 

Benedetto Lupo

If the two horns tended to dominate tuttis in Mozart’s symphony, in his Piano Concerto No. 18, their prominence nearly turned the work into a triple concerto.  So loud and spotlighted were the horns that one automatically looked to Dale Clevenger at the cadenza pause rather than the reticent piano soloist, Benedetto Lupo.  

The Italian pianist, a bronze medal winner at the 1989 Van Cliburn Competition, didn’t display a very strong musical personality Wednesday night, playing with efficient polish but little individuality, apart from some unconvincing rubato and dynamic marking. Labadie was the controlling hand here, and in the glorious Andante, the Canadian conductor’s penchant to rush tempos failed to give Mozart’s long lines room to breathe.

Haydn’s Surprise Symphony (No. 94), was cut from the same cloth: brisk, steely, and hard-edged, with more raucous horn work dominating the proceedings.  After Nicholas Kraemer’s delightfully witty Haydn performances with Music of the Baroque earlier this month, Labadie’s direction seemed even more wanting. Allegros were tense and over-driven with little buoyancy, grace, or humor, even the thunderous “surprise” chord in the second movement failing to raise a smile.

 With the addition of the Chaconne from Mozart’s opera Idomeneo, the program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday.; 312-294-3000.

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