Politics apart, Russians make an impression with CSO

Fri Mar 25, 2016 at 2:13 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

3/23/16 7:47:18 PM -- Chicago Symphony Orchestra Yuri Temirkanov conductor Denis Matsuev piano - Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 3 Brahms Symphony No. 2 - © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2016
Denis Matsuev performed Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with Yuri Temirkanov and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Great music manages to transcend politics, which is probably a good thing for the two Russian guest artists appearing at this week’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts.

Yuri Temirkanov got into hot water three years ago with his unenlightened views against female conductors: “The essence of a conductor’s profession is strength,” he said. “The essence of a woman is weakness.”

Just when the controversy seemed to finally be fading, this past week the 77-year old Russian conductor managed to reignite the issue telling the Baltimore Sun that while he believed woman can be podium leaders, it’s just not for him. “I am not against them conducting. But I simply don’t like it.”

Temirkanov’s antediluvian opinions on female conductors seem fusty and quaint compared to the political statements of the evening’s piano soloist. Two years ago Denis Matsuev signed a now-infamous letter of Russian artists praising Vladimir Putin’s invasion and slow-motion dismemberment of Ukraine. The letter states in part, “We firmly declare our support of the position of the President of the Russian Federation in regards to Ukraine and Crimea.” (Other musicians supporting Putin’s Ukraine campaign were Valery Gergiev, Yuri Bashmet, and Vladimir Spivakov.)

It may be old news now, and there were no protests on Michigan Avenue as had been the case when Matusev played in Cambridge shortly after news of the statement came out. Still, while he remains a superb pianist, as was shown in his Rachmaninoff performance Thursday night, one can’t praise Matsuev’s performance without being simultaneously repelled by his lending his position to support such an ongoing international tragedy.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 took up the first half of the evening—a rare occurrence since the beloved keyboard showpiece invariably winds up hard to top.

Matsuev’s technical arsenal is as complete as any pianist currently before the public yet the opening minutes of Thursday’s performance were so restrained as to seem almost offhand. Matsuev clearly sees the cadenza as the climax of the first movement–the “point” as Rachmaninoff called it–and his full-metal assault on the longer cadenza was explosive in its power and massive bravura.

The soloist brought stoic elegance to the main theme of the Intermezzo as well as a wry vivacity to the scherzando middle section. The solo burst that launches the finale was daunting in its fire and attack. Others have plumbed more light and shade in the concluding movement but Matsuev’s relentless buildup of momentum and sonority was undeniably thrilling, accelerating to a thunderous and virtuosic coda.

Temirkanov’s accompaniment was lean, focused and highly effective, keeping the strings tempered in Rachmaninoff’s arching themes and adding extra punch to the brass and percussion chords that herald the finale.

Matsuev earned one of the longest and most rousing ovations of the season with repeated curtain calls. Finally, he relented with an encore of Liadov’s A Musical Snuffbox, teasing out the music box delicacy with gentle charm and a deliciously halting rubato.

Another Romantic warhorse was on the menu in the second half, Brahms’ Symphony No. 2. 

In his first appearance with the CSO in 17 years, Temirkanov led a worthy if rather unsatisfying performance. Even the CSO’s adaptable musicians seemed to have trouble getting adjusted to Temirkanov’s unorthodox baton-less style—a kind of magic-hands pizza-making. Chordal attacks repeatedly came in waves rather than together.

The performance veered back and forth between a fluent technocratic approach and fitful lyrical blossoming. In the opening movement, Temirkanov’s hard-edged style gave us Brahms with a more bristly beard than usual in this most lyrical of his four symphonies. The performance seemed to warm up in the latter section of the movement, but the ensuing Adagio was decidedly cool and removed. There was little emotional tug to the nostalgic pages, even with beautifully burnished cello playing and bucolic flute contributions from guest Mark Sparks.

Surprisingly the Allegretto was most successful, the main theme relaxed yet rustic and the middle section tight and energetic. The dynamic finale provided the requisite payoff, but this was a Brahms Second that ultimately proved less than the sum of its parts.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday. cso.org; 312-294-3000.

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2 Responses to “Politics apart, Russians make an impression with CSO”

  1. Posted Mar 25, 2016 at 3:13 pm by Odradek

    Re: “one can’t praise Matsuev’s performance without being simultaneously repelled by his lending his position to support such an ongoing international tragedy”

    And why not? From his point of view, he was acting in support of returning Crimea to its proper position within Russia, a stance which was in accordance with the views of the majority of the peninsula’s inhabitants.

    Now, you can agree or disagree with that, but why a concert audience in the USA should feel compelled to take a position on a dispute between two foreign countries is not explained in this review. And if we are going to start evaluating the performances of artists based on their political views – that’s a very deep rabbit hole that we probably don’t want to go down.

  2. Posted Mar 26, 2016 at 12:18 pm by Jon Levine

    Alas, I don’t see how one can praise Matsuev’s performance at all. Perhaps it was Matsuev’s twin who performed Rach 3 on Friday afternoon, but there was no elegance whatsoever– it was bang-bang almost from the very beginning to the end. Yes, the audience loved it, but Rachmaninoff was I’m sure turning over in his grave. I went home and listened to the Bronfman/Salonen recording to rinse out my brain.

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