Labadie, Hamelin and CSO place early Beethoven in context with a fresh and bracing program

Fri May 09, 2014 at 3:22 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Bernard Labadie conducted the Chcaigo symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Luc Delisle Entiere
Bernard Labadie conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Luc Delisle Entiere

Thursday’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert offered one of those “split weeks,” in which half the orchestra is playing family and school events while the other half offers chamber orchestra programs on its subscription series. Yet rather than the usual obligatory Bach-Mozart lineup, guest conductor Bernard Labadie has designed a bracing and offbeat program  with works of Haydn and Beethoven paired with music by two little-known contemporaries.

We take it for granted, perhaps unconsciously, that the major composers we know today are the only ones of their era whose music was worth hearing. Yet the symphonies by two composers, each being played by the CSO for the first time, showed that there were other intriguing voices around as well.

Henri-Joseph Rigel’s Symphony in C minor, Op.12, no. 4 led off the evening. Rigel was a contemporary of Haydn, yet the outer movements have some of the driving urgency of Mozart’s minor-key symphonies, framing a lilting easygoing Largo. Labadie led the CSO forces in a taut and vital performance.

Joseph Martin Kraus is somewhat better represented, at least on recordings. Kraus’s style in his Symphony in E minor, VB 141, feels closer to Haydn, with its insistent energy and, especially, a galant Adagio with piquant oboe and horn solos. There’s also a dash of C.P.E. Bach in Kraus’s quirky rhythmic turns and off-kilter dynamism. Labadie and the orchestra provided  superb advocacy in a reading of fine vitality and rhythmic clarity.

Labadie’s French-Canadian compatriot Marc-Andre Hamelin joined him for Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D major, the composer’s only surviving keyboard concerto. Amazingly, this was the CSO’s first downtown performance of this delightful work in 34 years, since Raymond Leppard last played it conducting from the harpsichord.

Marc-Andre Hamelin. Photo: Fran Kaufman
Marc-Andre Hamelin. Photo: Fran Kaufman

Booking a soloist of Hamelin’s intellectual heft and blazing virtuosity to play this sunny if lightweight work is like driving a Maserati across the street to buy a newspaper. Yet Hamelin scaled down his style to deliver a performance that felt wholly idiomatic spiced by some wryly distinctive touches.

Taking a fleet tempo for the opening Vivace, Hamelin threw off the whirling solo part with light-fingered dexterity while keeping the music’s Rococo charm to the fore. At a consistently fast tempo, the pianist still worked in little dynamic curves and brought wit and a sardonic touch to Wanda Landowska’s cadenza. Hamelin also mined a surprising degree of expressive depth in the slow movement’s cantilena line, the turn into the minor almost seeming to anticipate Chopin. His cadenza—again by Landowska—was rendered with a probing delicacy.

The main theme of the Hungarian-flavored Rondo finale is one of those irresistible Haydn tunes. It went like the wind Thursday night, the music batted back and forth between soloist and orchestra in varied guises, culminating in a bravura coda. Labadie and the orchestra were equal partners in this exhilarating performance.

Repeated ovations brought Hamelin back out for an encore. “Haydn” he announced with a simple shrug, throwing off the Presto finale from the composer’s Piano Sonata in A major, Hob. XVI:26,  at lightning speed without losing the essential joie de vivre.

Hearing music of Haydn and Beethoven’s contemporaries placed the latter’s Symphony No. 1 in a fresh historical perspective. Though sounding inevitably conservative to contemporary ears in light of his icon-smashing works to come, the imagination of Beethoven’s First is immediately apparent heard in context with the Rigel and Kraus works. Rather than just a respectable craftsman, the weight of the slow introduction with its restless key changes and the ensuing exuberant Allegro paid notice that the 29-year-old Beethoven was something else altogether.

Labadie led a swift, light-textured performance pointing up the Classical era that Beethoven’s First Symphony hails from as well as the new Romantic world it would usher in. At times one wanted a bit more tonal and expressive weight. Yet Labadie underlined the individuality of the writing deftly while making this familiar music sound fresh. His Andante was brisk yet with a springy touch, and the witty finale, likewise taken faster than usual, brought out the shadow of Haydn, Beethoven’s teacher (briefly) with its humor and rhythmic vivacity.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday.; 312-294-3000.

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