Conductor Märkl makes notable Grant Park debut

Sat Jul 28, 2012 at 2:18 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Conductor Jun Märkl led the Grant Park Orchestra in music of Debussy, Saint-Saëns and Beethoven Friday night at the Pritzker Pavilion. Photo: Christiane Höhne

The unstated program Friday night at the Grant Park Music Festival seemed to be a celebration of Egypt’s move toward participatory democracy, with two Egyptian-inspired works followed by Beethoven’s Fifth, presumably as a victorious capstone to recent elections in the Middle East nation.

Whatever the subtext, Friday’s concert delivered superbly, with a notable festival debut by Jun Märkl. Chief conductor of the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony, the German batonsmith drew performances of impressive refinement and musical insight.

Debussy wrote Khamma for the controversial dancer Maud Allan — largely for the commission fee — but only orchestrated the first few bars, turning the rest of the scoring over to Charles Koechlin. If not prime Debussy, the 22-minute ballet on a rather melodramatic Egyptian scenario remains an interesting and attractive work and deserves more than its current neglect. Märkl, who has recorded Debussy’s complete orchestral music, drew a subtle, luminous performance that conveyed the restless, undulating disquiet of the score with especially fine wind playing by the orchestra.

Pascal Rogé has not appeared at the lakefront festival for many years and the French pianist made a welcome return in Saint-Saëns’ “Egyptian” Piano Concerto No. 5.

Rogé recorded a famous set of the complete Saint-Saëns piano concertos for Decca with Charles Dutoit in the late 1970s when the pianist was a young pup. That set remains a touchstone, and Rogé has clearly not lost a step in the intervening three decades as shown by the scintillating performance served up Friday night.

Saint-Saëns was an inveterate traveler and penned his fifth and final piano concerto on a winter vacation to Algiers and Egypt. Despite the stated programmatic elements — an Egyptian dawn, the croaking of frogs, ships’ propellers, etc. — the concerto remains Saint-Saëns through and through, chock full of elegant melody and lively keyboard bravura, crafted with characteristic polish.

Pascal Rogé

Rogé was somewhat handicapped by an overmiked Steinway, which rendered the treble end of the piano harsh and brittle and didn’t allow much of a true pianissimo. Even so, Rogé showed his idiomatic bona fides in this repertoire magnificently, playing with light-fingered articulation and tonal refinement throughout. Even with the brightly lit amplification, the soloist brought nuanced shading and sensitive expression to the Andante’s “Nubian love song.” The buoyant exhilaration of the finale is Saint-Saëns at his most irresistible, and Rogé here ratcheted up the virtuosity to a speed and power at the coda that was electrifying, earning an enthusiastic standing ovation. Märkl and the Grant Park Orchestra provided attentive and well-balanced support.

The combustible take on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony heard last season by Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra presented a local benchmark in that work that will prove hard to match.

The performance of Beethoven’s mighty Fifth presented Friday by Märkl and the Grant Park musicians initially seemed a bit lightweight by comparison, lacking intensity and corporate ballast. But there are different ways to approach this uber-familiar score, and Märkl’s Beethoven had a lean, tautness and solid integrity of its own.

Märkl drew a natural, organic performance that was all the more impressive for not trying too hard. The Andante was particularly fine with a flowing, easy eloquence, and the lean sonority and precise articulation throughout placed the work in a 19th-century context. The victorious finale has the requisite sense of release and plenty of excitement without being overdriven, souping up the volume out of period or otherwise playing to the galleries. Even so, the thousands that filled Millennium Park on a beautiful night were vociferous in their applause, calling Märkl back for repeated curtain calls.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

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