König brings integrity and excitement to Bruckner with Grant Park Orchestra

Sat Jul 16, 2016 at 1:56 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Christoph Konig led the Grant Park Orchestra in music of Haydn and Bruckner Friday night at the Pritzker Pavilion.
Christoph König led the Grant Park Orchestra in music of Haydn and Bruckner Friday night at the Pritzker Pavilion.

Christoph König made an impressive debut last summer at the Grant Park Music Festival, leading an outstanding performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6 at the Harris Theater.

Clearly, the lakefront festival realized they had a good thing going with the pairing of the German conductor and Austrian composer. König returned to Chicago Friday night to lead the Grant Park Orchestra once again in music of Bruckner, this time the Symphony No. 4 at the Pritzker Pavilion.

Bruckner’s Fourth is a better-known work than the Sixth and still the most often-performed of Bruckner’s ten-plus symphonies. While its subtitle, “Romantic,” could apply to any of Bruckner’s epic canvases, the Fourth seems especially imbued with that spirit—from the distant Alpine horn call that opens the work to the huntlike swagger of the Scherzo and the ascent to the triumphant closing bars.

König’s Bruckner is in the patient, searching vein of Karl Böhm and Bernard Haitink–minus the occasional stolidity of his veteran Dutch colleague. König always has the destination in view, and never resorts to prematurely whipping up volume and intensity for cheap, flashy effect. Throughout this expansive work, the conductor displayed a firm sense of each movement’s architecture and paced Bruckner’s long, sometimes repetitive, paragraphs with great skill and musical integrity.

That’s not to say the performance didn’t have ample excitement but it came from a sense of each powerful brass tutti being grounded within the overall structure. The framing movements were built from the ground up, with firm yet flexible direction. Lyrical episodes went with a lilting pastoral charm that was almost Haydenesque.

The Andante was especially fine, the opening section imbued with a darker gravitas than usual, each episode unfolding naturally and given its due character. With punchy brass playing, the Scherzo went with an almost equestrian swagger. König’s direction was most impressive in the finale, the music never peaking too soon and moving with a flowing, confident inevitability to the blazing final bars.

The opening horn call was on the shaky side Friday night. But after that the playing of the Grant Park Orchestra was polished and fully committed with largely magnificent contributions from the Grant Park brass in this long and demanding work. While the ensemble doesn’t boast the string luster or corporate amplitude of the CSO, there was a lean, tensile power in their dedicated performance that was more than compelling.

The table was nicely set for the epic Bruckner work with a first course of Haydn–the Symphony No. 55, in its lakefront premiere.

The work hails from the time when Haydn was exiting his sturm und drang period, and No. 55 is all lightness and charm. Those qualities were reflected in the trim, gracious performance of the reduced Classical-sized ensemble under König, with wonderfully deft and precise string articulation.

The symphony gained its title, “The Schoolmaster” by virtue of the Adagio, and König and the players provided just the right touch of wry pedanticism to the main theme. Principal cellist Walter Haman served up a stylish solo in the trio of the ensuing Minuet.

The finale is more in a lightly amusing vein than the knee-slapping comedy of many of Haydn’s closers. König underlined the quirky insistence of the main theme and observed dynamics alertly in a natural, non-schoolmasterish way. Refined and nimble playing by the Grant Park Orchestra rounded off this elegant, graceful performance.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday. gpmf.org

Posted in Performances

One Response to “König brings integrity and excitement to Bruckner with Grant Park Orchestra”

  1. Posted Jul 18, 2016 at 4:13 am by Claude Weil

    I love your reviews. They address the works performed much more directly than those of other Chicago music critics.

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