Eschenbach, CSO deliver a tough and eloquent Brahms Fourth at Ravinia

Sat Jul 14, 2012 at 2:05 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Christoph Eschenbach led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a Brahms program Friday night at Ravinia.

From his early career, Christoph Eschenbach was a Brahmsian to be reckoned with. As a pianist, he made a memorable recording of the German composer’s Piano Quintet with the Amadeus Quartet (DG) and during his tenure as music director of the Houston Symphony Orchestra, set down an underrated set of Brahms symphonies for Virgin.

Eschenbach led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in an all-Brahms program Friday night at Ravinia that offered a clear high point with a rich and eloquent account of the Symphony No. 4.

If Ravinia’s former music director can sometimes rely on a hard-driven and overly aggressive approach, the performance of Brahms’ Fourth showed the partnership of Eschenbach and the CSO at its most convincing. A few agogic pauses apart, this was a rich and eloquent account of Brahms’ final symphony that conveyed both the dramatic force and aching lyricism.

The pensive opening movement was surely judged by the German conductor, the ebb and flow natural yet having firm forward momentum. The moments of turbulent sturm und drang opened up powerfully yet Eschenbach drew dynamically nuanced playing in the reflective moments as well. In the Andante, the orchestra delivered glorious playing, plumbing a rich vein of deep feeling with glowing, beautifully blended string tone, paced with skill and sensitivity by Eschenbach.

The third movement was aptly vigorous and giacoso, and the performance rounded off with a full-tilt finale. For all its popularity, the symphony’s closing variations often fail to come off, yet Eschenbach had the full measure of this music. The opening chaconne theme has a raw hard edge and the various permutations were vividly characterized, with the coda conveying the craggy power and force of this music to unsettling effect.

Even the best orchestras tend to throttle down a gear or two in summer programs, but the Chicago Symphony musicians brought full intensity and peak-season commitment to this performance across all sections. Especially notable was Mathieu Dufour’s spare, searching flute solo in the finale and the superb playing of principal Dale Clevenger and the entire horn section.

The concert began with Brahms’ final orchestral work, the “Double” Concerto for Violin and Cello.

The popular Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti and German cellist Leonard Elschenbroich—who collaborated in a trio program with pianist Alexei Grynyuk the previous evening—made a worthy team and one expected great things.

For some reason, that didn’t happen. While the two young soloists played with admirable technical gleam, there was little sense of engagement with the music beyond playing the notes. Rarely has the opening Allegro seemed so long, with the soloists—Benedetti particularly—showing little rapport with Eschenbach whose bristling impatient direction stayed on the fast and loud side of things.

The performance improved in the Andante where Benedetti and Elschenbroich relaxed and blended gratefully, playing with more warmth and dynamic nuance. The finale came off solidly with the insistent main theme and dueling solo passages effectively done. But it definitely sounded like the concerto got the short end of rehearsal time and this was not a Brahms Double for the ages.

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