Combustible Brahms closes Chicago Philharmonic season

Mon May 16, 2011 at 10:55 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Larry Rachleff led the Chicago Philharmonic in Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 Sunday night in Evanston.

The Chicago Philharmonic has seen its share of financial issues in recent seasons including having to overcome a serious deficit in 2009 and mounting chamber programs to save funds.

Happily, the orchestra is still around, and clearly in robust health judging by their dynamic playing Sunday night at Pick-Staiger Hall in Evanston. It was also inspiring to see such an impressive turnout for the Philharmonic’s season-closing concert.

Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 is hardly terra incognita to most concert halls, but Larry Rachleff led a driven combustible performance that managed to make this much-played warhorse seem freshly minted.

In the live acoustic of Pick-Staiger Hall, the Philharmonic’s big, brawny sonority proved ideally suited to Brahms’s craggy symphonic drama. The Philharmonic’s music director is clearly a Brahmsian to be reckoned with and Rachleff’s energized and idiomatic direction drew responsive and eloquent playing.

The Philharmonic musicians brought a knife-edged bite to the opening movement yet conveyed the score’s introspection and lyrical warmth as well. The Andante’s ebb and flow was handled with great sympathy by Rachleff and the rich-textured strings, with concertmaster David Perry contributing sensitive violin solos. The woodwinds were fully in synch wit the relaxed bucolic qualities of the Allegretto.

The performance was rounded off with a finale that proved both crackling in drama and masterfully paced. With majestic horn solos and an intense cumulative buildup to the climactic final bars, this proved one of the most thrilling Brahms performances of recent seasons.

The first half proved less successful. Rachleff whipped up powerful tuttis in the opening movement of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto and the Philharmonic played with polish and dedication, some fitful disarray in the woodwinds apart.

Unfortunately, pianist Jeffrey Siegel was not up to the demands of the score Sunday night.  The soloist showed some sense of the concerto’s heroic qualities but his fallible playing was far below the standard of the orchestra with repeated clinkers, rough-edged passagework and general unsteadiness throughout. Even in the Adagio his stiff phrasing brought little expressive poise to the hymnlike main theme.

The Chicago Philharmonic’s 2011-2012 season will open October 2 with jazz guitarist Fareed Haque performing Villa-Lobos’s Guitar Concerto.; 847-866-6888.

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