CSO festival ends with riveting power and apt ambiguity

Fri Jun 06, 2014 at 1:41 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Simone Lamsma performed Britten's Violin Concerto with conductor Jaap van Zweden and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night.
Simone Lamsma performed Britten’s Violin Concerto with conductor Jaap van Zweden and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night.

The tempered sobriety of Benjamin Britten’s musical aesthetic seems an ill fit with the showy demands of concerto form. Though his Violin Concerto—the first completed work of his wartime American sojourn—received accolades at its 1940 New York premiere, the work has hovered on the fringes of the repertory (though more often performed than Britten’s Piano Concerto). The Chicago Symphony Orchestra didn’t get around to the work until 2005 with Franz Peter Zimmermann as soloist.

Britten’s Violin Concerto was the opening work in the final program of the CSO’s much-critiqued “Truth to Power” festival. And while Thursday night’s performance wasn’t ideal in all respects, soloist Simone Lamsma and conductor Jaap van Zweden made a convincing case that the concerto should be heard more often (unlike Prokofiev’s Symphony-Concerto heard earlier in the festival).

There are fitful bursts of bravura in the three-movement work but the overriding impression is one of brooding melancholy—not least in the concluding Passacaglia, which seems on its way to a triumphant coda when the music suddenly slows and turns quiet and introspective, ending the concerto on a note of restless unease.

Making her CSO debut, the Dutch violinist—wearing her national color in a form-fitting orange dress—was a largely worthy advocate though her playing was less technically airtight than what local audiences expect from guest artists with the CSO. Lamsma had some fitful yet jarring intonation lapses and in the final bars didn’t evenly sustain her thread of pianissimo tone.

Those pitchy moments apart, Lamsma appeared in synch with the virtuosic passages, assured in the final cadenza, and affecting and communicative in Britten’s searching lyricism, rendered with a yielding, delicately shaded expression. The CSO provided close support with van Zweden whipping up cataclysmic tuttis of Wagnerian dimensions. The increasingly obligatory standing ovations for concerto soloists brought Lamsma back out for a gentle encore of the Largo from Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 3.

There’s nothing unfamiliar about Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, the epic populist work that restored the composer to the good graces of Stalin and the cultural commissars. (Shostakovich’s penitent description of the work as “A Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism” seems especially antithetical to the festival theme of artistic courage.)

With four programs in three weeks, everything in van Zweden’s conducting kit is pretty much a known quantity by now—lean textures, taut incisive playing and rafter-rattling fortissimos. Yet while doing nothing particularly outre or strikingly individual, the riveting, full-throttle performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth delivered arguably the high point of the festival’s past three weeks with quite sensational playing by the orchestra even by local standards.

Van Zweden build the opening movement’s development with patient yet cumulative power and artfully underplayed the satirical element in the Allegretto to the music’s benefit. The Largo was especially fine—spacious yet firmly controlled with an undulating sense of tragedy. The CSO’s current string sonority—dark and burnished with velvet steel underneath—fits Shostakovich’s long arching lines like a perfectly tailored suit.

The endless debate over the final movement is a fool’s game: whether the brassy coda is meant to be taken as triumphant on its surface or, post-Volkov, suggesting a cryptic irony. After a very fast pace for the rousing main section, van Zweden slowed the tempo to a broad, firmly held moderato that felt like an ideal compromise—exciting on a visceral level yet with a sense of hollow ceremony that ended the symphony and the festival on a note of appropriate ambiguity.

Superb individual contributions to the Shostakovich performance came from concertmaster Robert Chen, timpanist David Herbert, and Mark Nuccio, the New York Philharmonic’s associate principal clarinet, sitting in for this week’s concerts.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. cso.org; 312-294-3000.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “CSO festival ends with riveting power and apt ambiguity”

  1. Posted Jun 08, 2014 at 6:54 pm by Acastos

    Just came from the Sunday performance. The violinist seemed a bit awkward and ill at ease. A cellphone ringtone was heard between movements, but conductor and soloist gamely plowed on. No encore. I thought it was interesting that all the wind principals, absent during the Britten, showed up for the Shostakovich. (Actually, it seemed like the string principals were also on stage only for the symphony). Anyway, Dufour was superb – one can understand why he’s in world-wide demand.

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