Poetic and elegant, Ax’s Chopin does Polish composer proud with Elder, CSO

Fri Apr 09, 2010 at 8:37 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Emanuel Ax performed Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 Thursday night with Sir Mark Elder and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Photo: J. Henry Fair.

Much of the music world is doing its best to mark the bicentennial year of Frederic Chopin’s birth, yet the problem for symphony orchestras is that there’s hardly anything to play.

The Polish composer’s orchestral output can be counted on just a few fingers: two piano concertos, the slightly embarrassing Fantasy on Polish Airs, a couple shorter concertante works, and cringe-inducing arrangements of piano works by other hands.

Fortunately with Emanuel Ax, one of our finest Chopin players, in the spotlight, and aided immensely by conductor Sir Mark Elder, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra marked Chopin year in style Thursday night with his Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor.

Granted, Chopin’s two concertos are early works from his late teens, and don’t reach the heights of his finest mature solo piano works, with a decidedly rudimentary handling of the orchestra. But the melodic elegance and polished piano writing of this not-quite-great concerto are inimitable and fit the soloist like a perfectly tailored glove.

If Ax can seem too amiable and uncomplicated in Late Romantic music, in Chopin’s concertos he has few peers. The pianist’s fluent passagework, finely chiseled detailing, and nuanced dynamics were virtually faultless Thursday. Ax brought more fire to the opening Maestoso than is sometimes the case, and was at his finest in the Larghetto, conveying the rapt, ruminative expression with poetic tenderness, Elder and the CSO accompanying with comparably meticulous support.

Ax’s pianism proved scintillating in the final movement, yet on Thursday lacked that last bit of virtuosic sizzle. Still with the eloquent and stylish support of Elder and the orchestra, this was a fine tribute to Chopin in this anniversary year, with Ax’s Chopinesque encore of Des Abends from Schumann’s op. 12 Fantasiestucke making an apt dessert.

Sir Mark Elder. Photo: Simon Dodd.

The balance of the program offered a trifecta of infrequently heard 19th-century works. And, as one might expect from an inspired Dvorakian like Elder, the English conductor showed himself equally at home in Mendelssohn.

Despite its title, the Reformation symphony (No. 5) wears its Lutheranism rather lightly, and even more so in this buoyant performance. Elder ensured that the strings provided the requisite spiritual glow to the Dresden Amen in the opening movement (later also mined by Wagner in Parsifal) and the horns and trombones brought apt weight to the climactic chorale Ein feste Burg. Yet the most striking element of this performance was the lyric charm and lightly sprung qualities, particularly in the second movement with notable contributions by oboist Eugene Izotov and guest flutist Lorna McGhee.

In refreshingly retro program style, Elder flanked the symphony and concerto with two overtures. Elder led a taut, uncommonly measured account of the curtain-raiser to Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini, shearing off the rhetoric and delineating the schizoid contrasts alertly without any lack of punch to the brassy coda.

Lest there be any letdown after the Chopin concerto, Wagner’s Rienzi Overture proved a worthy closer. Once again Elder showed himself an inspired leader, playing down the bombast and bringing a lean muscularity, scrupulous balancing and a cohesive strength to this sprawling piece. Wagner’s opera may be rambling and difficult to stage, but with its chockablock melodic richness, Rienzi surely deserves more revivals than it gets, and Elder and the CSO provided dynamic and full-blooded advocacy.

The English conductor is a terrific musician who has demonstrated a clear rapport with the CSO members, getting consistently excellent performances in a wide array of repertoire. Should the orchestra be looking for a podium adjutant to Riccardo Muti in coming seasons, they could do no better than signing up Elder as principal guest conductor.

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

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