Haitink and the CSO glorious in Mendelssohn’s “Midsummer” music

Fri Nov 06, 2009 at 5:31 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

There are few more alarming examples of musical precocity than Felix Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Composed at age 17, the young genius created a richly melodic, wholly beguiling and perfectly balanced masterpiece that captured the essence of Shakespeare’s characters with economy and painterly precision.

Nearly as remarkable is the fact that the mature Mendelssohn returned to his overture seventeen years later and, with forty works composed in between, managed to recreate his youthful inspiration, seamlessly expanding and adapting the themes and writing several new pieces for a production of Shakespeare’s play.

In his first appearance of the season, Bernard Haitink led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night in Mendelssohn’s complete incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream-–the Full Felix, if you will—marking the premiere CSO performance of every note of the score.

Looking more vigorous than a year ago, the CSO’s principal conductor led the CSO and assembled forces in a deftly presented, idiomatic and extraordinarily transparent performance. The trick in doing the complete Op. 61 is to avoid letdown after Mendelssohn’s amazing overture and sustain some sense of continuity and theatricality through the shorter works and  reprises.

This was skillfully accomplished by having Sir Thomas Allen as narrator. Discreetly amplified, the celebrated English baritone brought all of the characters to vivid life with Ara Guzelimian’s efficient adaptation of Shakespeare’s text.

Haitink brought out the youthful spirits and charm winningly, with gossamer delicacy to the violin playing in the Overture and Scherzo.  It was interesting to encounter the seldom-heard items—the little hunt-like Allego vivace, the mysterious harmonies of the second Andante and, especially the Marcia funebre from the play within a play, the  mock-tragedy nicely painted by the clarinet and bssoon.

Still it is of course the “hits” that make the biggest impact and all were resplendently presented with consummate refinement under Haitink’s alert direction. The horns were eloquent in the Nocturne, the  Dance of the Clowns bumptious yet elegant and the Wedding March crisp and joyous without a hint of bombast. Haitink’s meticulous ear was repeatedly manifest as with the clarity of the viola counterpoint in the trio of the Wedding March.

Soprano Erin Morley and mezzo Sasha Cooke supplied the requiste fairy voices in their brief assignments with Cooke especially characterful in Ye spotted snakes. The young Girls of Anima –dressed in baggy, strangely Maoist powder-blue uniforms—sang with inpressive clarity and rhythmic point, bringing a certian artless naivete to the music that felt right.

Another peerless craftsman, Maurice Ravel, was heard on the first half with Jean-Yves Thibaudet as solo keyboard protagonist in the Concerto for the Left Hand.

The French pianist has this music in his blood as well as his fingers, and rarely will one hear a more idiomatic performance that brings out the sudden bursts of bravura as well as the elegant lucidity and sheer strangeness. With eyes closed, it would be difficult to imagine Thibaudet was not using both hands, such was the fire and intensity of his playing. The accompaniment of Haitink and the CSO was on the same gleaming high level, some fallible horn notes apart.

More Ravel led off the evening with Alborado del gracioso, another of the French composer’s smartly scored Spanish-tinged works that always seem to be reflecting some private joke. The performance was on the same high level as the rest of the evening. Haitink’s calm control is a fine fit for this brilliant work, with balances scrupulous even in the most wildly cacophonous moments, and the Dutch conductor drawing out the darker shadows of this music more than most.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. www.cso.org312-294-3000.

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