Denève, CSO bring the wondrous strange with Berlioz

Fri Dec 06, 2013 at 2:15 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Stephane Deneve led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music of Berlioz, Shostakovich and von Weber Thursday night
Stéphane Denève led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music of Berlioz, Shostakovich and von Weber Thursday night.

Some would say it’s musicological ethnocentrism to impute a certain idiomatic insight to conductors in music of their countrymen. As anyone’s experience can tell, not all Italian conductors knows what to do in Verdi, and not every German batonsmith is brilliant in Brahms or Beethoven.

Yet listening to the performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique with Stéphane Denève leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night, it was hard not to think that it can’t really hurt to be French in this repertory. Back for a return engagement after his impressive 2011 CSO podium debut,  the frizzy-haired French conductor made this uber-familiar work seem freshly minted.

Berlioz’s 49-minute opium-fueled orchestral fantasia of love, jealousy, revenge and divers grotesquerie is so often performed—and so often indifferently—that its brash originality and audacious scoring get sloughed over en route to another deafening “March to the Scaffold” or fast and furious “Witches Sabbath.”

Those latter showpiece sections of the symphony made brilliant impact to be sure Thursday but more due to Denève’s careful balancing and lucid textures than raw volume or power. What Denève did so well is bring out the mercurial qualities and sheer weirdness of Berlioz’s phantasmagoric score with all its programmatic schizophrenia and wondrous strange timbres.

Characteristically, it was the quiet moments that seemed so fresh Thursday—as with the anticipation in the extended introduction to the first movement or the sense of glowing repose Denève brought to its coda. His fleet tempo made for a faster waltz than usual in “Un Bal,” which remained graceful yet with a firm energy. So too the “Scene aux champs” was atmospheric yet flowing with Scott Hostetler’s English horn solos lending the right evocative rusticity.

The “March to the Scaffold” had fine impact with trumpets leading the taut brass attacks yet here and in the frenzied finale, the conductor’s organic moulding of the varied sections skirted bombast while ensuring cumulative buildup to the roaring final chord.

Thursday’s performance was not entirely airtight with some shaky moments from one of the section horns and substandard flute playing from the assistant principal. Yet most of the playing was polished to a characteristically high sheen with the CSO brass, strings and percussion at their considerable finest.

Of the 20th-century works in the genre, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 seems to tower above all others. Not because of its history—the composer kept the work in a drawer for seven years until Stalin’s death—or because of its crypto-anti Stalinist backstory; one can play that musicological detective game forever and still come up with no verifiable answers.

Rather it is because the Op. 77 concerto, like all great music, transcends its specific inspiration and circumstances. Shostakovich’s handprints, to be sure, are manifest in every bar, yet in its darkness, aggressive edge, and searching fragmented lyricism it seems to reflect the broader, unsettled mid-20th century landscape. Beyond the violin’s role as the composer’s Doppelganger, the soloist here seems a kind of embattled Everyman—as the violin emerges from the depths of the opening bars through a forced gaiety and bleak slow movement. Only after the cadenza’s titanic struggle, does the instrumental protagonist gain control and gather strength until exploding in a frenetic yet defiantly optimistic finale.

James Ehnes
James Ehnes

James Ehnes is a superb artist and a musician of great taste and technical polish. Rarely will one hear this music played with such spot-on intonation and technical gleam. The soloist hurdled all the work’s myriad complexities with ease, and the barnstorming bravura was dashed off with pinpoint precision.

And yet I couldn’t help feeling that Ehnes seemed miscast in Shostakovich’s concerto. His pure tone and elegant style seemed too sweet and lightweight, wanting in both body and projection. This is not a work that one can handle in a Mozartian fashion, and the performance sorely needed more gutsy violin tone, greater thrust and more aggressive attacks. I found myself almost leaning forward to hear his lightly projected violin sound more clearly.

There was also a lack of crucial dramatic intensity. While Ehnes drew some rarified pianissimos in the searching Passacaglia, there was little sense of the music’s desolation nor that the life-or-death struggle in the ensuing cadenza was about anything beyond the notes themselves. In the lightning energy of the finale, his violin tone often disappeared altogether, even with Denève scaling down the orchestra sonority to accommodate his soloist’s slender timbre.

The audience clearly felt differently, giving the gracious Canadian a warm and enthusiastic standing ovation. Ehnes returned for a poised and elegantly expressive encore of the Largo from Bach’s solo Sonata no. 3, BWV 1005, music in which his refined style seemed much more in tune.

The evening led off with von Weber’s The Ruler of the Spirits Overture in its CSO subscription premiere.  The brief concert overture made a snappy leadoff to the evening with Denève leading a vital performance, pointing up contrasts stylishly.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. On Tuesday, the Violin Concerto will be replaced by Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 with Gabriel Cabezas as soloist. Also Denève, Gerard McBurney and the CSO will present a Beyond the Score program examining the Symphonie fantastique 7:30 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Sunday.; 312-294-3000.

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