Van Zweden leads a program of grief and transcendence with CSO

Fri Nov 11, 2016 at 1:31 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Jaap van Zweden led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Brahms' "Ein deutsches requiem" Thursday night with soloists Christiane Karg and Michael Nagy. Photo: Alex Garci
Jaap van Zweden led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Brahms’ “Ein deutsches requiem” Thursday night with soloists Christiane Karg and Michael Nagy. Photo: Alex Garcia

When this week’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra program was planned a year ago, who could have foreseen that the opening work–Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music–would seem so apropos for those audience members still in grief over Tuesday’s election results?

In fact, Thursday night’s program, led by Jaap van Zweden, was entirely concentrated on last things and transcendence with Brahms’ Ein deutsches requiem as the evening’s main work.

Written originally for small ensemble and male voices, Mozart soon revised his Masonic Funeral Music as a nonvocal work for larger forces, to be played at a memorial service for two of Mozart’s lodge brothers. Van Zweden led an atmospheric performance that brought out the somber ceremony of this miniature, underlining the dark hues of the basset horns and contrabassoon, yet finding a hopeful vein in the rising violin line.

Death also haunts the “Prelude and Liebestod,” of course, Wagner’s bivalved excerpt of the opening and closing music from his epic opera, Tristan und Isolde. The Dutch conductor took a rather technocratic approach to the Prelude–his taut control emphasizing lean textures and directness over chromatic richness, in a way light years from Daniel Barenboim’s luxuriant style in this music.

Yet aided by John Bruce Yeh’s atmospheric clarinet solo, van Zweden opened up the music in the ensuing Liebestod with full concentration, leading to an ardent climax and release of emotion that registered with effective impact.

The CSO Chorus is performing this weeks’s  scheduled concerts of Brahms’ Ein deutsches requiem even though they have been without a contract for the past two months. The CSO released a statement earlier in the day that negotiations are continuing.

Van Zweden, music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and music director-designate of the New York Philharmonic, led an alert, sturdy performance of Brahms’ German Requiem that managed to be reliable and well-prepared.

Yet ultimately this Brahms Requiem was stronger on the dramatic, heaven-storming choral sequences then on the more interior moments of solace and consolation.  The hushed choral entrance at the opening lacked atmosphere and mystery, and Thursday’s performance only intermittently touched the heart–largely failing to convey the emotional richness or explore the profoundly moving depths of Brahms’ extraordinary 69-minute meditation of loss, grief and transcendence.

Both soloists were excellent however in their CSO debuts. Michael Nagy’s strong, easily projected baritone conveyed the stern admonitory passages without losing a humane expression in his warnings of the finality of death and the transitory nature of earthly life. 

Christiane Karg made her Lyric Opera debut a year ago as Susanna in the company’s unfortunate staging of Le nozze di Figaro. The German soprano was heard to better advantage Thursday, singing with golden tone and a restrained feeling that made her single solo even more moving.

The CSO Chorus delivered all its big moments on cue with power and impact. Yet this was not the most airtight or polished outing with some early entrances and ensemble slips.

Likewise the orchestra playing was committed yet balances were often off and there were odd moments of disarray, notably the wavery flute playing, which undid the glowing benediction of the final pages.

These performances of Brahms’ Requiem are dedicated to Deborah Guscott, a 28-year member of the CSO Chorus’s alto section, who passed away August 10.

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

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Van Zweden leads a program of grief and transcendence with CSO”

  1. Posted Nov 13, 2016 at 4:03 pm by Gerhard A. Fuerst

    I was in Chicago for all three of these CSO performances, November 10-12. While indeed I was able to notice some qualitative differences from one performance to the next, I thought the overall presentations were magnificent. Yes, indeed, Christiane Karg, a very dear personal friend, has a glorious voice! There is a mesmerizing magic to the clarity of her tone! Baritone Michael Nagy did equally well! The CSO Chorus was absolutely superb. I was impressed by Maestro Jaap van Zweden’s conducting, and the CSO followed his baton with eloquent precision.
    Thanks CSO, soloists and chorus for providing uplifting experiences to help me get over the depression and devastation of this utterly deplorable and catastrophic 2016 election!

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