CSO offers mixed rewards with Schubert and Elgar

Thu Mar 27, 2014 at 12:13 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Riccardo Muti led the CSO in music of Schubert and Elgar Wednesday night at Symphony Center.
Riccardo Muti led the CSO in music of Schubert and Elgar Wednesday night at Symphony Center.

The second and final week of Riccardo Muti’s March residency is bringing two more installments of this season’s Schubert cycle from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra along with a late concerto masterpiece by Sir Edward Elgar.

Schubert’s Second Symphony was omitted from Wednesday’s shortened Afterwork Masterworks program but his “Unfinished” symphony (No. 8) made a companionable pairing with the Elgar Cello Concerto. Both share a sense of brooding minor-key melancholy and stark drama, even tragedy, in the Schubert particularly.

Muti’s approach to Schubert is a known local quantity by now and has changed little since his 1980s recorded set with the Vienna Philharmonic. As in previous installments, the playing was bracingly incisive, with transparent textures and pinpoint clarity and balancing. Dynamics were highly defined, with the hushed opening from basses and cellos hovering on audibility. There was a tautness to the drama with the first movement’s climax firmly pointed yet kept in scale, ensemble honed to a high polish.

Yet beautifully played as this “Unfinished” was, at times one wanted Muti to relax his iron grip just a bit for a more yielding approach. The cellos’ theme of the opening movement and the Andante, especially, felt too rigidly controlled and didn’t allow the lyric charm of the music to blossom, with some of the extreme dynamic contrasts sounding a bit fussy. That said, the playing was wonderfully inspired with glowing Viennese string tone and the usual elegant and stylish contributions from oboist Eugene Izotov and flutist Mathieu Dufour.

John Sharp
John Sharp

John Sharp, the CSO’s principal cellist, has been an important and consistently reliable component of the orchestra for nearly three decades. Taking the solo spotlight for Elgar’s Cello Concerto, his burnished tone and tasteful playing were clearly in synch with the English composer’s idiom. Sharp brought out the nostalgic ache of the Lento with great sensitivity and was at his finest in the work’s final reminiscence, rendered with hushed intimacy, even with drawing out the phrases a bit too indulgently Wednesday.

Yet ultimately, this was a largely routine outing of Elgar’s concerto. The pastoral lyricism was there but not enough of the bristling virtuosity to contrast it. The fleeting bravura moments felt cautious and reined-in, with too many solo passages emerging rather bland. This big Romantic work requires a more outsized personality as a soloist—as well as bolder projection than Sharp’s slender tone supplied Wednesday. Overall, much of the solo playing felt one size too small for the music.

Muti and Sharp’s colleagues served up an alert, high-gloss accompaniment.

The program, with the addition of Schubert’s Second Symphony, will be repeated 8 p.m. Thursday, 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday. cso.org; 312-294-3000.

Posted in Performances

3 Responses to “CSO offers mixed rewards with Schubert and Elgar”

  1. Posted Mar 28, 2014 at 1:35 pm by xiaosquared

    After listening to Jacqueline du Pre’s version of the Elgar cello concerto for so many times, it was hard to not critique John’s version.
    However it was just so amazing to listen to it in person. What a marvelous piece of work.

  2. Posted Mar 30, 2014 at 5:57 am by Robert Eisenberg

    The Saturday night performance of Schubert’s second symphony was memorable. Evidently, I was not the only one to think so: Maestro Muti addressed the audience to praise the remarkable playing of the orchestra and amuse us in general.

  3. Posted Mar 31, 2014 at 11:35 pm by Chuck Burkhead

    I agree with the comment about the overall quality of the performances for this program: polished, elegant,and memorable.

    However there was a bit of a ‘first’, for this season between Maestro Muti and the rather restive, not-to-be-suppresessed coughers. As the almost inaudible, hushed Unfinished Symphony began a man coughed quite noticeably. Muti stopped very briefly,gave a icy stare in the general direction, and began again. Not a cough to be heard in the hall. Then some clapping at the end of the first movement. More Maestro agitation with tapping of his baton on the support, but not turning around. Then a brief icy glare at the end of the symphony–in the direction of cougher number one. It was a performance within a performance.

    A lighter note before the beginning of the Second Symphony. One of the violin players over-tightened(?) her bow strings, something broke and she left the stage for a very rushed few minutes to get another bow. Muti smiled, sat in her seat,and addressed the audience with “It was not MY fault.” Maybe something about “things like this happen to string players on occasion.” She came back, everyone smiled,and the performance was stellar.

    Quite an unusual day at Symphony Hall. BTW, the ‘straw poll’ around my area seemed to very pleased at Maestro registering his ire with some of the audience behavior.

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