Russian rarities make for a dark and noisy night with Muti, Ma and CSO

Fri Jun 15, 2018 at 2:49 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Riccardo Muti and Yo-Yo Ma acknowledge applause following the CSO performance of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 2 Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

As has become his custom, Riccardo Muti is back in town to lead the final two weeks of the Chicago Symphony Orchestras’s increasingly protracted season.

There was even more of a sense of occasion as usual with the music director’s home stands. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the CSO’s popular creative consultant, was the evening’s soloist. And more than 600 orchestra and music business professionals in town for the League of American Orchestras conference were in attendance.

This week’s Russian program offered not familiar Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff, but instead spotlighted a pair of 20th-century curios: Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 2 and Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 3.

One would like to be positive whenever Muti makes one of his infrequent forays into unsung repertory. But Thursday night’s results proved mixed at best–due largely to the inherent deficiencies of the two main works, than to any lack of commitment or execution in the performances.

Famously written for his friend Mstislav Rostropovich, Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 premiered in 1959 and immediately entered the repertory. Coming seven years later, its successor has achieved nothing like that popularity; performances remain few, even for this widely played composer, a half-century after the work’s 1966 debut (also by Rostropovich). The CSO hasn’t touched the Second Cello Concerto in a decade, since Han-Na Chang last performed it in 2008.

It’s not too hard to understand why. As with many of Shostakovich’s late works, like the final string quartets and Viola Sonata, his Op.126 concerto is a stark, unremittingly bleak work–even for a composer not known for frolicsome charm.

Brooding solo passages alternate with antic percussion in the extended opening movement, progress abruptly halted by the bass drum. The central Allegretto offers some respite from the lugubrious gloom with a dance-like motif in the composer’s sardonic scherzo mode.

The final movement is especially enigmatic. Opening with a mock-royal horn fanfare, the soloist segues into a cadenza-like section against a tambourine. There are satiric bursts of energy against a repeated cadential motive for the soloist, imbued with a kind of lyric pleading. The tempo slows down and the soloist trades phrases with ironical percussion rattles, the music becoming lighter and quieter until a sudden final note of despair from the cello soloist.

Examining the filigree of every Shostakovich score for personal and political crypto-narratives is a fool’s game; his works, like all music, must ultimately stand or fall on their own merits. Yet the Second Cello Concerto is such a baffling and often bizarre piece that it’s hard not to feel there is some significant program underlying its dour strangenesses–one we’ll likely never know.

Yo-Yo Ma made about as compelling a case for this problematic work as one is likely to hear. Thursday night’s performance was not the most technically airtight outing the celebrated cellist has given in Chicago; Ma seemed to be consciously emphasizing a tonal dryness and rough-edged quality at times in his running passages, perhaps reflecting the music’s shadowy desperation. There was no sense of subversive irony in the rising cadential phrases of the finale, Ma giving them full-throated emotional fervor with each iteration.

If the work ultimately remains a puzzlement, the sense of the solo cello as a tragic protagonist in a malign landscape was manifest throughout Ma’s playing, and the abrupt final note could hardly have been more fatalistic.

Some of the dialogue between the solo cello and winds could have been tighter Thursday night. But otherwise, Muti supplied a boldly projected and darkly plangent backdrop for his soloist. Various obbligato instruments figure prominently in this score and stellar contributions were delivered by hornists Daniel Gingrich and James Smelser and percussionists Cynthia Yeh, James Ross and Vadim Karpinos.

Of course, Ma received a clamorous ovation for his intense performance and did his patented hugfest with most of the first-desk players. The cellist refused to take a solo bow and insisted on dragging the reluctant conductor out for every curtain call. The audience ate up their Alphonse-Gaston routine, with a resigned Muti finally giving in and playfully poking Ma in the ribs with his baton.

Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 3 closed the evening. Muti led the last CSO performance of the work in 2007, three years before he took the reins as music director.

When Prokofiev’s opera The Fiery Angel looked like it was never going to be staged, the composer cobbled together his Third Symphony recycling music from the unperformed opera and various other works.

There may be a worse symphony written by a major composer in the 20th century than Prokofiev’s Third. (Leonard Bernstein’s “Kaddish” symphony is right up there or down there.) But I doubt it.

Vacuous and bombastic, Prokofiev’s Third Symphony is a cochlea-jangling disaster–repetitious, slick and soulless. As his compatriot Shostakovich noted, Prokofiev was too often content to rely on flashy superficialities rather than matters of substance in his music. Never was that truer than here with the value of the symphony in roughly inverse proportion to its volume.

The CSO’s music director has an inexplicable fondness for these kind of souped-up, third-rate showpieces. This is one of those works that must be more enjoyable to rehearse and perform than it is to listen to. 

To his credit, Muti coaxed light and shade whenever possible, as in the second theme of the first movement, and brought a tender delicacy to the Andante.

The musicians responded with playing of sonic fury, customary virtuosity and galvanic intensity, giving Muti the maximum power and volume he asked for, and delivering the loudest playing heard in the hall all season. But even this partnership can’t make a silk purse out of this tinnitus-inducing sow’s ear. 

Shostakovich’s bleak concerto was preceded by the composer’s most unclouded and optimistic work, the Festive Overture. Muti led a fast, blazing performance that was undeniably exciting but the fierce, hard-driven style conveyed little of the music’s joyful qualities.

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

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3 Responses to “Russian rarities make for a dark and noisy night with Muti, Ma and CSO”

  1. Posted Jun 15, 2018 at 11:00 pm by Rjb

    Who played 1st trumpet on the Prokofiev?

  2. Posted Jun 16, 2018 at 8:07 am by Lawrence A. Johnson

    This week’s principal guest trumpet was Esteban Batallán, principal of the Granada City Orchestra in Spain.

  3. Posted Jun 17, 2018 at 6:29 am by Bob Scharba

    For me, this program was like a meal of raw root vegetables….healthy perhaps, but rather nasty. I wouldn’t mind if I never hear that concerto again. Sorry…..just my opinion.

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