Tilson Thomas, CSO serve up exhilarating and eloquent rarities by Brahms and Mahler

Fri Dec 09, 2011 at 11:18 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Michael Tilson Thomas led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a program of Brahms, Beethoven and Mahler Thursday night at Symphony Center.

There are few Chicago podium guests as consistently reliable as Michael Tilson Thomas.  Artistic director of the San Francisco Symphony and the New World Symphony academy in Miami Beach, the conductor can be counted on to deliver rousing performances while always managing to unearth some off-the-beaten-path repertoire.

This week is no exception, with Tilson Thomas’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra program providing a characteristic topspin to familiar composers Thursday night with a pair of quasi-rarities of Brahms and Mahler.

Arnold Schoenberg believed that by orchestrating other composers’ chamber or instrumental works, he would show these works in a stronger light as well as bring some lesser-known music to larger audiences.

Schoenberg’s Bach transcriptions are often wildly anachronistic, yet his symphonic retooling of Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor is largely rendered with great skill. At many points this music could indeed pass for “Brahms’ Fifth Symphony,” as with the rocking theme for the woodwinds at the start of the Intermezzo or the lush string outpouring of the Andante.

Still, there are oddities. There is a strangely collegiate feel to the opening Allegro’s second theme in Schoenberg’s retooling, like a discarded motif from the Academic Festival Overture. Plus while the scoring is mostly idiomatic, Schoenberg’s large forces are a kind of Brahms on steroids — calling for bass clarinet and four percussionists, with a xylophone adding gypsy fervor to the Rondo finale.

If Tilson Thomas’s performances of the regular Brahms symphonic canon can sometimes seem a bit slick and lacking in innigkeit, Schoenberg’s extra dollop of glitz and brilliance suits the conductor to an MTT.

Schoenberg’s retooling is not for purists but for all its daring and fleeting weirdness, his orchestration does succeed in making you hear the G-minor Quartet in a fresh light. In the right hands, the arrangement can prove both musically rewarding and a hell of a lot of fun, and Tilsom Thomas and the CSO served up a full-tilt performance of huge panache that made the finest possible case for this oddball confection.

Thursday’s playful and unbridled performance made one appreciate the quartet’s thematic richness as well as the range of expression in this work. The conductor brought out the depth of burnished feeling in the Andante and elicited playing of outsized swagger in the marchlike middle section. The gypsy-flavord finale was exhilarating, not for speed and volume but for the clarity of textures and the rhythmic acuity of the lightning tempo shifts under Tilson Thomas’s direction.

The CSO offered terrific playing across all sections, with clarinetist Stephen Williamson providing his finest playing to date, throwing off his klezmer-like solos with rustic, uninhibited zigeneur fervor.

It’s unfortunate that in the composer’s centennial season that Tilson Thomas — one of our finest Mahler conductors — wasn’t assigned an entire Mahler symphony in Chicago rather than just an isolated single movement. Still, so beautifully played was Mahler’s Blumine Thursday night that it made its own considerable impact.

After the initial performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 — heard at Orchestra Hall last week — the composer decided to excise the symphony’s slow movement. This Andante, titled Blumine (flowers) was lost for over 70 years until rediscovered by Mahler scholar Donald Mitchell in 1966 and given its belated 20th-century premiere by Benjamin Britten the following year.

Mahler’s final thoughts are usually best and the popular First Symphony isn’t lacking for the loss of Blumine. Yet so rich and eloquent was the performance heard Thursday that it made one think that perhaps it’s time to consider restoring this long-lost music as part of the First Symphony’s performances. Tilson Thomas and the orchestra conveyed the vein of pensive introspection in a refined and glowing performance highlighted by Chris Martin’s majestic, sensitively floated trumpet solo.

Jeremy Denk

The evening’s centerpiece was Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with Jeremy Denk as soloist. Long best known as Joshua Bell’s keyboard partner — and one of the classical world’s wittiest bloggers — Denk in recent years has been carving out a high-profile solo career as well.

In his CSO debut, Denk brought a fresh, vigorous quality to this keyboard warhorse with lively articulation and a polished technique. What was sometimes lacking was an interpretive depth and a greater variety of tonal coloring. The Largo — one of Beethoven’s loveliest inspirations — was sensitively played, but the expression stayed largely on the surface. One was more conscious of the transparent, finely detailed accompaniment of the orchestra under Tilson Thomas, a greatly underrated Beethoven conductor.

The rollicking finale came off best but here too for all the soloist’s vital engagement and head-wagging, Denk’s playing was a bit impersonal and straight-faced, missing in musical personality and making little of the coda’s quirky humor.

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

Posted in Performances

4 Responses to “Tilson Thomas, CSO serve up exhilarating and eloquent rarities by Brahms and Mahler”

  1. Posted Dec 09, 2011 at 9:29 pm by wjmccartney

    I was unfamiliar with the Brahms/Schoenberg piece. I thought it was a terrific end to a great performance. I am new to a CSO subscription, but have had Lyric Opera tickets, with a brief interlude, due to military necessity, since 1961. I would appreciate a recommendation of a decent recording of the aforementioned piece. Bill McCartney

  2. Posted Dec 10, 2011 at 1:17 pm by Lawrence A. Johnson

    There are quite a few recordings of the Brahms/Schoenberg, but the safest recommendations are Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic (EMI) or Christoph Eschenbach and the Houston Symphony Orchestra (BMG/RCA).

  3. Posted Dec 12, 2011 at 2:12 pm by rjk

    Saw this concert Saturday night and pretty much agree with this review. Wonderful performances of the Mahler and Brahms/Schoenberg (neither of which I had heard before) but I found the Beethoven a bit dull. Maybe the rest of the audience agreed, as Denk and Thomas came out for a third curtain call and found a large part of the audience already leaving for the intermission.

  4. Posted Dec 16, 2011 at 3:23 pm by ForAlMighty

    The piano performance that night was mediocre.

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