Pintscher, Thibaudet and CSO fete Ravel in resplendent style

Fri Apr 06, 2018 at 2:01 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Matthias Pintscher conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

It was 90 years ago that a short, dapper man ascended the Orchestra Hall podium to lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a concert of his own music.

Those 1928 concerts marked Maurice Ravel’s only appearances conducting the CSO. As Philip Huscher’s program note indicates, though the French composer found the food substandard on his American tour, Ravel was heartened by the strong ovations he received for his music, not least in Chicago.

On Thursday night, Matthias Pintscher made his CSO debut in a program that recreated two of the three works Ravel led in Chicago. (This week was originally scheduled to be led by Charles Dutoit; the Swiss conductor’s appearances were quietly jettisoned–as they have been universally by major orchestras–following widespread reports of sexual misconduct.)

The evening began with Debussy’s Saraband and Dance in Ravel’s orchestration. This retooling shows Ravel’s distinctive gift for scoring, with the orchestral arrangement elevating these modest piano miniatures into something grander and more significant.

Pintscher’s baton technique is somewhat rudimentary but the German composer-conductor led a responsive performance that conveyed the melancholy shading of the Saraband–sounding more like Ravel than Debussy in this version–as surely as the jaunty vigor of the Dance.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet performed Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Having Jean-Yves Thibaudet as solo protagonist in Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand proved luxury casting indeed. Few keyboard artists embody Ravel’s blend of supple elegance and unbridled bravura so naturally and effortlessly. The French pianist’s limpid refinement in the lyrical sections was as neat and idiomatic as his explosive bursts were exciting. Thibaudet’s five-fingered virtuosity handled the leaping notes with such ease and fluency, one would swear that two hands were playing.

Pintscher and the orchestra supplied their soloist with an equally fiery accompaniment, though the high-powered tuttis at times tended to bury their soloist. Miles Maner’s opening contrabassoon solo was aptly strange and unsettling.

When Ravel conducted the CSO in 1928, he led only the Suite No. 2 from Daphnis and Chloe. Pintscher and the CSO are giving local audiences the Full Maurice this week, with the complete score including chorus.

The 1912 Ballets Russes premiere of Ravel’s ballet boasted a virtual who’s who of talent (impresario Sergei Diaghilev, conductor Pierre Monteux, designer Leon Bakst, choreographer Michel Fokine, and dancers Nijinsky and Karsavina). Even so, Daphnis and Chloe did not enjoy great success at its Paris debut and in the intervening century has failed to enter the regular dance repertory.  The work’s subtitle as a “choreographic symphony” was prescient since it is the concert hall in which Ravel’s music gained its popularity and enduring fame.

The conductor drew hushed playing in the opening Introduction that hovered on the edge of audibility. In a work scored for huge forces, Pintscher skillfully paced the 50-minute canvas, judging the ebb and flow deftly and largely avoiding longueurs. This was a boldly projected and brightly colored Daphnis with weighty climaxes and overpowering tuttis, especially with the CSO Chorus lending resplendent support.

Yet too often missing in this big-boned performance was a sense of the music’s sensual languor and the more subtle colors and intimate atmosphere.  Still, if not the most evocative Daphnis and Chloe one will ever hear, it was undeniably exciting with the concluding Bacchanal whipping up suitable Dionysian fervor.

Guest oboe Mingjia Liu–principal of the San Francisco Opera–made an indifferent impression with rather pinched tone in his solo moments. The CSO, however, were at their finest, collectively and individually with outstanding solo contributions from flutist Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson, bassoonist Keith Buncke and concertmaster Robert Chen.

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

One Response to “Pintscher, Thibaudet and CSO fete Ravel in resplendent style”

  1. Posted Apr 06, 2018 at 11:43 pm by George Young

    As an (amateur) oboist myself, attending the Friday afternoon performance found the guest principal oboe (whom I had never previously heard and also had never heard of) with exemplary tone and phrasing throughout. Perhaps some changes to reeds in dealing with the considerably different weather here at present from what he is used to in San Francisco?

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