With two debuts, CSO presents a rare Northern night of Nielsen and Sibelius

Fri Feb 28, 2020 at 3:49 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Hannu Lintu conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Veikko Kahkonen

It says something about the conservatism of Chicago Symphony Orchestra programming in the Riccardo Muti era that these days an evening of Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen seems not only adventurous but almost exotic.

Hannu Lintu made his CSO debut Thursday night, conducting the orchestra in a nicely balanced Scandinavian program that offered a pair of works by each composer. Currently chief conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony, Lintu takes up the same post with the Finnish National Opera and Ballet in 2022.

Lintu has been impressive in past appearances at the Grant Park Music Festival—most notably leading a rousing 2011 performance of Sibelius’ Kullervo symphony.

Yet, rather surprisingly, in his CSO debut the Finnish conductor proved more consistently successful in music of the Dane, Carl Nielsen than of his famous compatriot.

Nielsen wrote his Helios Overture in 1903 while on a Greek excursion with his sculptor wife. The music may have been inspired by the picturesque surroundings and the fanciful skyward journeys of the title Greek sun god. But the music is indisputably Northern in flavor and wholly characteristic of Nielsen.

Thursday night, remarkably enough, marked only the second CSO performance of the Helios Overture—and the first since Jean Martinon conducted it in 1966. (That performance was preserved on disc and released on RCA with an equally stellar account of Nielsen’s “Inextinguishable” symphony.)

At 12 minutes, the Helios Overture is a tone poem more than a mere curtain-raiser, and Lintu approached it in that expansive vein. The conductor drew strikingly hushed string playing in the opening measures, reflecting the darkness over the Aegean Sea. Principal horn David Cooper and colleagues painted the Greek sunrise with luminous elegance, and fanfare-like trumpets ushered in a crackling allegro section, cast in Nielsen’s brand of rustic vigor. Lintu led a detailed and atmospheric performance throughout, most impressive in the closing section, where the tempo slows and the music quiets as the night descends again to silence—effectively sustained by Lintu holding off the applause for several seconds.

The program notes indicate that the popularity of Nielsen’s Violin Concerto is on the rise but that hasn’t been the case, stateside at least. Like the Helios Overture, Nielsen’s Violin Concerto was being played Thursday by the CSO for only the second time, and the first after a long respite. Maxim Vengerov gave the concerto’s CSO premiere in 1996 with Daniel Barenboim conducting (that performance was also recorded, for Teldec).           

The violin was Nielsen’s own instrument and his concerto is masterfully crafted for the equipped soloist–rich in melody and offering manifold opportunities for solo brilliance not least in the two extended cadenzas. 

The problem with the concerto is structural. Nielsen cast his concerto in two movements of four different sections, which is fine. But the sections stubbornly refuse to hang together effectively. The jokey Allegretto scherzando section that concludes the concerto ends it on a lightweight, ephemeral note (even with the sudden emphatic final chord) while the crackling, free-wheeling virtuosity that closes the first movement feels more like a genuine concerto ending. One can’t help feeling that if Nielsen had flipped the movements, his concerto would be a more satisfying work (and receive more performances).

Pekka Kuusisto. Photo: Felix Broede

The solo protagonist this week is Pekka Kuusisto, making his CSO subscription debut. The Finnish violinist is something of a character—restless, smiling and making faces, turning to nod approvingly at the orchestra and even raffishly putting one hand in his pocket during extended orchestra passages. 

Fortunately, the violinist can back up his cocky stage persona with impressive musicianship. Kuusisto provided a quirky, improvisatory touch, and fantasy-like, rhapsodic quality that suited the score. He brought touching tenderness to the opening Largo’s main theme and, even at a very slow tempo, sustained the musing of the Poco adagio compellingly.  

Kuusisto’s tone is sweet yet slender, and his intimate style made this work feel more chamber-sized than usual; Lintu, likewise, thinned down volume and textures to complement his soloist. Yet if not big in sonority, Kuusisto was unassailable technically, blazing through the cadenzas’ minefields and setting a blistering pace in the bravura sections. Lintu and the orchestra provided simpatico accompaniment, sensitive and glowing in lyrical pages and equally romping in fast sections.

Receiving a clamorous ovation,  Kuusisto’s antic quality extended to his encore. Noting wryly that Nielsen wrote his concerto at a time of “marital friction,” he played his own arrangement of a traditional Danish bridal tune from the village of Sønderho—replete with high harmonics, country-village swagger and even a hummed drone accompaniment supplied by the game and amused CSO musicians.

Sibelius’s Finlandia led off the evening. Surprisingly this most populist work of the Finnish composer hasn’t been played by the orchestra in nearly a decade.

Lintu led a more tempered reading of his compatriot’s tone poem that one often hears. In the baleful introduction, phrasing and dynamic marking sounded slightly fussy in Lintu’s hands, yet the heroic main theme went with ample power. Flutes brought a nice unsentimental pastoral expression to the nostalgic central melody. Overall, this was a technocratic reading shorn of rhetorical excess yet not lacking in drama with the finale making rich and stirring impact.

Sibelius’s Symphony No. 5 closed the concert. There were worthy moments yet in the early going the performance felt unfocused, sounding distinctly like it got the short end of rehearsal time. The opening bars lacked any sense of unfolding mystery and the first movement proceeded in a literal fashion without much atmosphere or mounting dramatic tension. A loud Siri outburst of “I’m on it” from some cretin’s cell phone in the lower balcony likely didn’t help anyone’s concentration.

The lovely middle movement was similarly offhand, uninflected in phrasing with dynamics hovering at a steady mezzo-forte. Some mannered moments from Lintu apart, the finale went best. Keith Buncke illuminated bassoon lines that one rarely notices; and David Cooper and horn colleagues brought gutsy and resplendent playing to the majestic main theme, Lintu ensuring that the six, massive, widely spaced final chords made arresting impact.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday at Wheaton College and 8 p.m. Saturday at Orchestra Hall. cso.org; 312-294-3000

Posted in Performances

One Response to “With two debuts, CSO presents a rare Northern night of Nielsen and Sibelius”

  1. Posted Feb 29, 2020 at 11:14 am by OwenY

    I appreciated the sight of Kuusisto, having changed into white tie and tails to match the orchestra, slipping into the back of the first violins to share Blair Milton’s stand for the Sibelius 5.

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