In duo roles, Znaider brings out fire and fantasy with CSO

Fri Dec 22, 2017 at 12:58 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Nikolaj Znaider performed as violinist and conductor with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Lars Gundersen
Nikolaj Znaider performed as violinist and conductor with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Lars Gundersen

Pianists who conduct from the keyboard are a venerable part of musical history from Mozart’s time and that tradition has long been manifest at Orchestra Hall. Former music director Daniel Barenboim often led Mozart concertos as soloist, and Mitsuko Uchida and Andras Schiff have followed suit in recent seasons with equally deft double-duty.

Less common locally are string concerto soloists who also direct the orchestra. Pinchas Zukerman is best known for donning these two hats, though the invariably dull and uninvolved results don’t make the case that this is such a good idea.

For its final program of 2017, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra invited another violinist-conductor, this time from a younger generation, to appear as both soloist and conductor. As a violinist, Nikolaj Znaider has enjoyed a successful solo career for two decades and appears to be making a smooth transition to the podium. Previously a principal guest conductor with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Znaider currently serves as principal guest conductor of the Mariinsky Theatre Symphony Orchestra in St. Petersburg.

The evening’s program of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto provided an opportunity to get reacquainted with Znaider in both roles. And while he received mixed notices in 2015 at Ravinia, in his CSO subscription podium debut, the Danish-Israeli musician largely delivered compelling and successful results.

Beethoven’s Violin Concerto was also the vehicle for Znaider’s last downtown CSO soloist appearance in 2009, and Thursday’s night’s performance was all gain over that mixed outing. Holding his 1741 “Kreisler” Guarnerius del Gesu in his left hand, Znaider conducted the extended orchestral introduction with his right, the tall musician punching out accents with clear, emphatic gestures.

In the expansive first movement, Znaider took a lighter, more gracious approach, which seems to be increasingly de rigueur in this work among younger players, as with Julia Fischer’s Mozartean rendering last year.

Yet–unlike Zukerman’s sleep-walking suavity with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in this work–Znaider delivered a vital and vigorous performance that consistently held one’s interest. His solo playing was not always immaculate with a few scattered dropped notes. Yet his performance was unfailingly musical, nicely bringing out a fantasy element in the score, and always well coordinated with the orchestra even with minimal directorial gestures. Though his lightish timbre leaned toward the Classical side of the equation, Znaider drew taut and dramatic tuttis in the orchestral passages, which balanced things out.

If he didn’t plumb as deeply as some in the philosophical depths of the Larghetto, there was much tender and lovely solo playing with a confiding intimacy in Znaider’s hushed dynamics. His fiery approach in the finale was very much a young man’s Beethoven–more outward bravura and athletic swagger in each iteration of the Rondo’s main theme with the final jokey payoff registering with panache.

The performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony led by Znaider after intermission was generally strong and idiomatic, if ultimately more mixed, at times showing evidence of a young conductor in need of some seasoning.

The opening pages were strikingly low-key and almost mellow, an interesting interpretive choice. Znaider paced the music naturally with an unhurried tempo, the acceleration in the middle section outburst  firmly projected if lacking the requisite mechanistic brutality. The Schezo went with ample vigor with the satiric elements nicely underlined.

In the slow movement one felt a lack of podium experience most acutely. Znaider drew a wide dynamic range and unearthly, barely audible violin playing at times. Yet this deeply felt music never quite found a cohesion or expressive center of gravity—the performance moved from section to section smoothly but failed to convey the bleak desolation at the Larghetto’s heart of darkness; the mundane woodwind solos didn’t help.   

The final Allegro was off at a blistering pace, the “non troppo” part of Shostakovich’s marking casually jettisoned. Still, the results were undeniably exciting and effective; Znaider gauged the tempo shifts adroitly with a deft broadening for the final pages that conveyed the not-quite-genuine triumph of the coda without special pleading.

The CSO musicians seemed to relish their collaboration with Znaider as much as the audience, with more enthusiastic applause than is the norm from the stands for their Danish colleague.

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

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