Honeck and CSO provide the highlights in Mozart evening

Fri Jun 09, 2017 at 12:46 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Manfred Honeck conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in an all-Mozart program Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Manfred Honeck conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in an all-Mozart program Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is heading into the final leg of its long–perhaps overlong–season, and these next two weeks bring a pair of popular and distinguished guest conductors, both of whom should figure on any short list of potential successors to Riccardo Muti.

Susanna Mälkki comes to town next week. And Thursday night Manfred Honeck was on the podium leading an all-Mozart evening at Orchestra Hall.

Honeck’s Chicago appearances to date have largely centered on the central Austro-German romantic repertory for which he is most renown. Thursday night, the Austrian conductor was just as impressive in music of his compatriot Mozart and, if the performances were inconsistent, none of that was the fault of conductor or orchestra.

The Salzburg Festival-style program offered six Mozart works, splitting spotlight honors between two soloists, one familiar face and the other making her Chicago debut.

Regula Mühlemann was heard in a trio of vocal items. The Swiss soprano possesses a light, soubrette voice well suited to Mozart’s music, also featured on her debut recording released last year.

Regula Mühlemann. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Regula Mühlemann. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

In the celebrated motet/concert aria Exsultate, jubilate, Mühlemann showed an attractive tone and the requisite flexibility in the coloratura outer sections yet failed to project evenly throughout her range. There was little effervescent jubilation in the closing Alleluia, and in her blandly literal approach to the contrasting middle section (“Tu virginum corona”) the young singer didn’t give any indication that the music meant anything beside the notes.

And so it went after intermission as well. In the Laudamus Te from the Mass in C minor, Mühlemann’s first note went seriously awry with pitchy moments elsewhere and a facile response to the text. Despite the roiling emotions of Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio!, the soprano may as well have been singing scales for all the cool detachment she brought to the aria. The challenging piece seemed a dubious choice for  Mühlemann, with the singer dexterously negotiating the wide octave leaps, but with breaks between registers like the San Andreas Fault. She brought some belated fire and determination to the final section but too little too late. Clearly Mühlemann knew she was not having a good night, passing on the scheduled stage exit between her last two arias, as if thinking, “Let’s just get this over with.”

Paul Lewis. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Paul Lewis. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Paul Lewis is a better-known quantity in Chicago, and he proved a more reliable solo protagonist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27. The British pianist is widely celebrated for his playing of Viennese keyboard masterworks and, indeed, his clean technique, and pearly tone were mostly beyond reproach.

But, as on previous occasions, I found Lewis’s playing respectable to a fault: tasteful, idiomatic and polished–one odd slip in the first movement apart–yet faceless to the point of being dull. In Mozart’s final work in his favorite genre, one wanted greater expressive engagement and individuality. When Lewis did do something singular like his overgenerous grace notes in the Larghetto, it seemed grievously misjudged, undermining the spare, valedictory quality of the elegiac main theme with intrusive busyness.

Lacking engagement with the concerto’s deeper emotions, the finale came off best in Lewis’s hands, with the child’s song-like main theme going with a charming lilt. The accompaniment from Honeck and the orchestra was engaged and characterful throughout with especially delightful flute work from Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson.

The finest moments of the evening came when Honeck and the orchestra had the stage to themselves. The Overture to La Clemenza di Tito opened the evening and set the stage for Honeck’s Mozart–vivid, bracing and brightly colored with the thundering timpani underlining the dramatic urgency of the opera’s scenario of Roman power politics. 

The “Haffner” symphony (No. 35) closed the program in superb style. As in Romantic rep, Honeck is a dynamic podium presence and he drew Mozart playing of combustible vitality from the orchestra. Yet while incisive and bracing, the conductor never neglected details–as in the Menuetto’s subversive little Trio—nor sacrificed an essential grace or refinement. Honeck took Mozart at his word that the final Presto should go “as fast as possible” and the musicians’ accuracy at a blazing speed made a thrilling close to the evening.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. cso.org; 312-294-3000.

Posted in Performances

3 Responses to “Honeck and CSO provide the highlights in Mozart evening”

  1. Posted Jun 10, 2017 at 9:49 am by Tod Verklärung

    The soloist had her difficulties Friday afternoon as well, but Honeck’s was the most stylish Mozart playing we’ve had in a long time.

    The short list of potential Muti successors you mentioned prompts two thoughts. 1. What are Muti’s plans, if any, to step down when his current contract ends in 2020? He will be 79 that summer. 2. If the CSO is “auditioning” for a successor, next season’s guests don’t offer many possibilities. Mälkki is not scheduled, nor any female, but many senior citizen males are, including Dohnanyi, soon to be 88, Eschenbach (who will be 78), Blomstedt (approaching 90), Dutoit (80 in October), John Williams (76), Emmanuel Krivine (70), and Marek Janowski (79 by the time he arrives).

  2. Posted Jun 11, 2017 at 12:10 am by stickls

    Based on the results of their past engagements with the CSO and their availability, my wish list for the next MD currently consists of: Bychkov, Honeck, Mälkki, and the Spaniard Juanjo Mena. Few probably have Mena on their radar, but I hope someone would convince the CSO to give him a hard look.

    I am also certain some factions will immediately ring LA at the first sign of a Muti departure, and Dudamel may actually come over since Borda is leaving for New York. In his sole engagement here, the orchestra was utterly charmed by his youthful enthusiasm. However youthful enthusiasm can only go so far, and “the dude can do no wrong” attitude LA has hampered his development.

  3. Posted Jun 12, 2017 at 2:21 pm by Peter DG

    It’s great to have two superb critics here in Chicago. They typically note the same points so you know the’re not bluffing; especially once you adjust for arts promotion vs constructive criticism. But not for this program. You wonder if they both attended the same night. I will be there tomorrow to judge for myself.

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