Tetzlaff provides the highlight in CSO’s lightish Viennese program

Fri Jun 02, 2017 at 3:24 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Juraj Valčuha conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night.
Juraj Valčuha conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night.

Thursday night’s concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra may not have offered a season highlight but it certainly presented the weirdest program of the year: a Haydn symphony, a Szymanowski concerto and a second half devoted to Strauss waltzes (Johann Jr. and Richard).

Two weeks after Jakub Hrůša’s inspirational debut with Smetana’s Ma vlast, it was the turn of another Eastern European maestro, Juraj Valčuha, to make his CSO bow Thursday night. The Bratislava native became music director of the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples last fall and has enjoyed a steadily rising stateside profile, leading several top American orchestras in recent seasons.

If not as impressive a stand as his Czech colleague last month, Valčuha showed himself a capable and incisive batonsmith, though the lightish, virtually Viennese lineup didn’t offer a whole lot of opportunity for interpretive depth.

The evening led off with Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 85 (“Le reine”). Haydn remains the most inexplicably neglected of the great composers, likely because his witty and urbane music is viewed by many–unfairly–as too cheerful and uncomplicated for our dark and cynical times.

Valčuha directed a performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 85 “Le reine” that was trim, well-balanced and alert to dynamic markings, with worthy vitality in the finale. Yet too much of the performance was literal and straight-faced, missing an essential wit and Haydnesque charm.

The outlier in this program was the Violin Concerto No. 1 by Karol Szymanowski, which provided the highlight of the evening. Composed in 1916, the Polish composer’s concerto was given its CSO premiere by the great Paul Kochanski–who inspired its composition–in 1928 under Frederick Stock. Cast in a single movement of 23 minutes, the work is characteristic of Szymanowski’s perfumed late Romanticism. Though attractive in its lyrical languor, the concerto remains an unconvincing hybrid of Debussy and Scriabin, with a whiff of Rachmaninoff without the tunes.

Christian Tetzlaff
Christian Tetzlaff

Still Szymanowski’s work can be undeniably effective in the right hands and with Christian Tetzlaff as solo protagonist such was the case. Even playing from a score, the soloist was fully engaged in the concerto’s restless rhapsodic style. The German violinist gave a wholly compelling take on this unwieldy piece, investing the virtuosic bursts with his singular brand of bristly bravura and leaning into the surging lines with a slender, focused tone that skirted the schmaltz. Valčuha’s tight yet flexible accompaniment was finely balanced throughout, in close synch with his soloist. Teztlaff was warmly applauded for his performance by audience and orchestra alike.

In the lightweight second half Valčuha seemed in his element, coaxing a vital and idiomatic take on Johann Strauss Jr.’s Emperor Waltz.

Richard Strauss’s suite from his opera Der Rosenkavalier obviously loses something essential without singers. Still, it’s an enjoyable confection, stitched together with great skill. Valčuha led an affectionate, well-upholstered performance bringing rich Viennese lilt to the waltzes and drawing playing of sumptuous impact at the climaxes. In their clarinet and violins solos, respectively, Stephen Williamson and Stephanie Jeong brought enough character to make up for the lack of voices.

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

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2 Responses to “Tetzlaff provides the highlight in CSO’s lightish Viennese program”

  1. Posted Jun 04, 2017 at 8:16 am by Bill Seliger

    What was the name of the Bartok encore Christian Tetzlaff performed Saturday night?

  2. Posted Jun 07, 2017 at 12:59 pm by Lawrence A. Johnson

    Likely the final movement (Presto) of Bartok’s Sonata for Solo Violin. He played it as an encore last night at Carnegie Hall.


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