Vänskä, Capuçon brothers team up for satisfying Brahms with CSO

Fri Oct 19, 2012 at 2:25 pm

By Michael Cameron

The Capuçon brothers performed Brahms’ Double Concerto Thursday night with Osmo Vänskä and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Many Chicago Symphony Orchestra patrons were no doubt disappointed to hear of the cancellation of this week’s appearances by former principal conductor Bernard Haitink in an all-Brahms program (for now he is still on the docket for next week’s performances of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis).

His replacement this week is Osmo Vänskä, music director of the Minnesota Orchestra and noted Sibelius interpreter. CSO’s press releases conspicuously avoided mentioning that the conductor was available only because his orchestra is still on lockout, one of the last American orchestras yet to resolve its labor issues after the Indianapolis Symphony resumed work earlier this week.

On the surface Vänskä’s readings of two Romantic warhorses often seemed unremarkable, but lurking here and there were details that made for an ultimately satisfying evening.

The soloists were the superb French brothers Renaud and Gautier Capuçon as violinist and cellist in the Double Concerto in A minor. This was their first Orchestra Hall appearance as a team, though each recently appeared as soloist in repertoire as obscure as the Brahms is ubiquitous.

The best performances of this concerto usually emerge from virtuosos with distinct musical personalities, but the siblings made a strong case for tightly unified teamwork. Both have an especially rich, glamorous tone, with lush vibrato and finely honed technique that easily vanquished even the treacherous terrain of Brahms’ finale.

The violin often overpowers its larger cousin in this work, but Gautier’s magnificent Goffriller cello usually gained the upper hand. The opening cadenza was glowing and rhapsodic, though paced a bit ponderously. The pair was especially effective in the lyrical middle movement, trading phrase after liquid phrase with refined ease. For an encore, the duo served up a sizzling account of Johan Halvorsen’s Passacaglia on a Theme by Handel.

It’s a rare occasion when something novel emerges from a reading of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, and such attempts usually fizzle when the composer’s classical structures are tampered with. Vänska’s account mostly let the score unfold naturally, with safe tempos, precise but unforced balances, and a wealth of telling detail.  Transitions that in some hands are underlined with manipulations in tempo were instead allowed to move ahead, a strategy that maximized momentum. The conductor marked his climaxes with emphatic bursts in volume and articulation, an approach that paid off handsomely in his high-octane reading of the finale.

Yet it was the second movement that left the strongest impression, with the spotlight squarely on several CSO principals. Concertmaster Robert Chen has never sounded better than in these sumptuous solo massages, and flutist Mathieu Dufour and clarinetist Stephen Williamson added exquisitely spun lyrical phrases. Even more impressive was the playing of oboist Eugene Izotov, boasting deeply felt melodic utterances and wondrous breath control. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the horn section, with many passages here and in the finale marred by faulty intonation and strangely sour tone.

The program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. cso.org.

Posted in Performances

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