Winter fire: Kozhukhin, van Zweden and CSO heat things up with Russian program

Fri Dec 15, 2017 at 1:40 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Denis Kozhukhin performed Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 Thursday night with Jaap van Zweden conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Denis Kozhukhin performed Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 Thursday night with Jaap van Zweden conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

With the downtown temps dipping below freezing again Thursday night, it wasn’t too difficult to set a Russian atmosphere for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s populist program of cornerstone works by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff.

Jaap van Zweden was back on the podium and had ample reason to look pleased. Just 48 hours earlier, the New York Philharmonic announced that it had raised a cool $50 million as part of a successful “launch fund.” Not a bad welcoming gift for van Zweden, who takes the reins as the Philharmonic’s music director in the fall of 2018.

Yet as worthy as van Zweden’s direction of the CSO was Thursday night, the evening belonged to Denis Kozhukhin, solo protagonist in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

The 31-year-old Russian pianist has been impressive in his previous CSO stands and his solo turn in Rachmaninoff’s beloved Romantic warhorse was his finest yet.

His wasn’t a note-perfect performance with a couple fleeting moments of muddied passagework. But Kozhukhin largely played with such innate authority, leonine command and poised yet unsentimental lyricism that he didn’t seem to be “interpreting” the music at all. Rachmaninoff’s long-limbed melodies were rendered with a supple poetic touch and natural empathy as much as Kozhukhin’s clarity and eruptive dynamism vaulted through the passages of breakout virtuosity.

The performance culminated in an exhilarating finale that led up to the final bars with mounting inexorability–the movement’s big tune given with rich resplendence in its final flowering and the race to the coda thrillingly played by Kozhukhin, van Zweden and the orchestra with their soloist every step of the way.

This was one of the rare times when the instant cheers and standing ovation were well deserved. The applause recalled the pianist back to the stage until he obliged with an encore–“La fille aux cheveux de lin” (The girl with the flaxen hair) from Book I of Debussy’s Preludes, rendered with limpid delicacy.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 remains an ineradicable part of the concert hall repertoire, just as much as the concerto that preceded it Thursday night. Yet while the brooding and dramatic Rachmaninoff seems to only gain in value with the years, Tchaikovsky’s symphony wears less well, for all its popularity and melodic distinction. It’s hard to disagree with the self-critical composer who felt there was something slick and superficial about the final movement even with its surface excitement.

Still, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth is an undeniably effective piece in the right hands, and such was surely the case Thursday night. Jaap van Zweden’s quickish tempos made for a reading of driving urgency with a hint of rawness at times as in the raspy horn attacks, that let an apt sense of edgy desperation to the proceedings.

The orchestra was at their considerable finest collectively and individually, with Daniel Gingrich floating a plangent, rounded horn solo in the Andante. The finale was off at a quick pace with the march-like main theme’s buildup to to the triumphant coda as blazing and energized as one could wish.

The evening led off with the Prelude to Act 1 of Wagner’s Lohengrin. If there was a rather steely luminosity to the violin tone–the unfortunate byproduct of the post-renovation acoustic–van Zweden led a concentrated, beautifully played performance that rose to a serene yet majestic climax, the acute dynamic marking and musical integrity making up for the lack of ecclesiastical glow.

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

Posted in Performances

3 Responses to “Winter fire: Kozhukhin, van Zweden and CSO heat things up with Russian program”

  1. Posted Dec 16, 2017 at 10:46 am by Mary G.

    What was the piano encore on Friday Matinee concert? To me it sounded like Rachmaninoff but I can’t give a title and have never heard the piece, actually.

    Perhaps because the heat was on full strength for cold temps Thursday evening, Hall seemed warm. Maybe the encore was changed to reflect the charged atmosphere.

  2. Posted Dec 18, 2017 at 10:44 am by Charles Moore

    The Saturday night encore was Brahms, Intermezzo, Op. 117, No. 1.

  3. Posted Dec 21, 2017 at 3:52 am by Robert S Eisenberg

    It is easy for us lucky enough to hear the CSO many times a year to forget just how extraordinary their playing is, and incredibly how it continues to improve.

    Consider the playing in Tchakovsky’s 5th. The cello section produced their usual miracle. Exact intonation, incredible beauty, unmatched–even unapproached in any recording, including the remarkable (technically) Barenboim Tchaikovsky series.

    The violins and violas are now nearly matching the celli, which was not the case a few years ago, not that they have had any competition in any other orchestra since Barenboim rebuilt them.

    The brass were the CSO brass as they have been for the forty years I have listened, built on a foundation of trombones, led by the undiminished Jay Friedman since 1962!!

    Gingrich continues to improve from his already high standard. One only hopes he is paid as if he were the principal horn.

    And now we have woodwinds worthy of the rest of the orchestra! Williamson played loud enough so we could easily hear his fine work (in the lower balcony: this had not been true a year or two ago) and let himself go in a John Bruce Yeh moment that greatly added to the pleasure of the evening. The flute work of Höskuldsson was beyond words, awesome. And our bassoon is unmatched if unheralded. Only the tympani were a bit below the standard Vadim Karpinos set a few weeks ago in the Sibelius 1.

    It is a miracle that this group of musicians has maintained such a standard of excellence for so very long. It is simply beyond belief that they continue to improve.

    What other human institution reaches this standard?

    My Christmas Carol echoes Tiny Tim “God bless them, everyone”


    Thank you.

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