CSO’s majestic Bruckner eventually reaches the summit

Fri Nov 13, 2009 at 8:58 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 was performed by Bernard Haitink and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night.

Those looking for spiritual musical consolation this weekend could hardly ask for two more contrasted works to choose from: Leonard Bernstein’s wildly eclectic 1960s rock-meets-classical Mass at Northwestern University in Evanston and Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 presented by Bernard Haitink and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Bruckner’s final symphony was left without a concluding movement at the composer’s death. Yet, as with Schubert’s “Unfinished,” Bruckner’s Ninth seems fully realized in its incomplete form: the epic, searching drama and stark contrasts of the opening movement, followed by the Scherzo’s unsettling fury and an Adagio that manages to achieve a hard-won transcendent solace.

Haitink and the CSO each bring long experience and distinguished Bruckner traditions to this music, and the team’s recording of the Seventh Symphony is a testament to their mutual sympathy in this challenging repertoire.

The Austrian composer’s music remains a Haitink specialty, with the Dutch conductor’s lucid objectivist style and rock-ribbed musical integrity taking the patient long view where others are content to merely whip up the volume and brassy climaxes.

That said, there were times Thursday night at Orchestra Hall when one would have welcomed a bit more idiosyncrasy. Haitink’s directorial skill was manifest and Bruckner’s music was played with the weight, power and precision that is the CSO standard under its principal conductor. Yet sections of the vast opening movement felt rather stolid Thursday, wanting in detailing and nuanced dynamic marking.

The performance seemed to find its footing as it progressed and the Scherzo had all the requisite implacable fury, the light-footed middle section providing welcome respite.

The climactic Adagio possessed moments of emphatic literalness as well, yet Bruckner’s grinding chromatic climaxes—the end of traditional tonality clearly on the horizon—were put across by Haitink and the orchestra with massive, jarring impact. If a bit too boldly outlined, the long journey to the transcendent coda was skillfully directed by Haitink with clarion brass playing by the orchestra, the four Wagner tubas providing the requisite glowing benediction.

Lighter Austrian fare preceded the Bruckner with Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante in B flat major. Crafted with Haydn’s inimitable flair and finesse, the work has long served as a user-friendly opportunity to get four principals in the solo spotlight, as was the case here with the CSO’s front-desk violin, cello, oboe and bassoon.

Haitink provided nimble, big-band backing yet the performance, while pleasant enough, was not quite the last word in winsome musical vivacity. Cellist John Sharp was clearly having an off night and while concertmaster Robert Chen brought a light touch and refined tone to his cadenzas, the playing seemed a bit strait-laced in music that needs to smile more. Oboist Eugene Izotov and bassoonist David McGill found greater individuality and wit in their opportunities.

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

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