Van Zweden’s fresh, invigorating Rachmaninoff sparks populist CSO program

Fri Apr 23, 2010 at 1:51 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Conductor Jaap van Zweden led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music of Rachmaninoff and Brahms Thursday night at Symphony Center. Photo: Bert Huselmans

Jaap van Zweden has become the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s go-to batonsmith for sudden cancellations. The Dutch conductor, music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, made his CSO debut in 2008 filling in for an indisposed Riccardo Chailly, and returned the following year taking over duties from the ailing Semyon Bychkov.

Thursday night, van Zweden was back to cover the second week of concerts originally slated to be led by Esa-Pekka Salonen and cancelled by the Finnish maestro for undisclosed personal reasons.

Disappointment that Salonen’s scheduled Nielsen Symphony No 5—a strange and compelling work—would be replaced by the more populist and crowd-pleasing Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 2 was largely forgotten in the wake of Thursday’s bracing, freshly scrubbed performance.

With his ungainly leapfrog style, van Zweden doesn’t cut a Terpsichorean podium figure but the conductor certainly gets results. His invigorating take on Rachmaninoff’s rich Russian Romanticism blew the cobwebs off, shearing off the rhetoric and making one listen to this nearly hour-long symphony with fresh ears.

Those who prefer more Russian emotionalism and heart-on-sleeve sentiment in this expansive melody-rich work, might find van Zweden’s fleet tempos and light textures a bit technocratic and New Europe.

Yet his view was consistently responsive to the score, both the soaring lyricism as well as the bristling dynamism. The Adagio was more flowing and refined than deeply expressive, yet none the worse for that, launched with a mellifluous solo by guest principal clarinetist Olli Leppaniemi from the Danish National Symphony.

The Scherzo had ample fizzing drive and while the finale was held on a tight rein, the coda’s blazing jubilation proved all the more effective for not peaking too soon.

As one might expect from the former concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw, van Zweden drew lustrous string playing in Rachmaninoff’s long-limbed melodies. It was also wonderful to hear the CSO horn section playing again with such cohesive clarity, muscle and polish.

The CSO members clearly enjoy and respect van Zweden judging by the players’ smiles during the performance, and he’s earned the right to be invited back as a scheduled guest conductor rather than a replacement.

The first half offered Christian Tetzlaff as solo protagonist in Brahms’ Violin Concerto.

Back at Orchestra Hall for the second time this season after his memorable Bach marathon last October, Tetzlaff’s performance of the Brahms concerto appeared something of an interpretive work in progress Thursday night.

The German violinist, who was making only his second downtown CSO appearance, does not have the most robust tone and Tetzlaff offered a committed if rather slender, almost Mozartian take on Brahms’ mighty warhorse.

Despite his scholarly mien, Tetzlaff can be a fiery and spontaneous presence in concert, even sacrificing technical polish to the impulsive spur of the moment. One wanted more of that quirky idiosyncrasy in a performance that seemed a bit safe and well-behaved by this artist’s standard. Similarly van Zweden’s low-key accompaniment reflected his soloist’s intimate take on this music.

Still, the Adagio was floated with refined feeling—introduced with a gorgeous oboe solo by Eugene Izotov—and the finale had more of Tetzlaff’s unbridled bravura, rounding off an admirable rather than commanding performance. No complaints about Tetzlaff’s encore of the Largo from Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 3 in C major, rendered with spare eloquence and finely detailed expression.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.; 312-294-3000.

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