Blomstedt returns to CSO, leading rich and spirited Brahms

Fri Mar 06, 2020 at 2:58 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Herbert Blomstedt conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

There is likely no better introduction to Johannes Brahms than the composer’s Symphony No. 2. After struggling with his First Symphony for two decades, the Second was finished quickly over a summer holiday. That ease of creation is apparent in the unforced flow of rich melody and relaxed pastoral lyricism culminating in the most physically thrilling finale Brahms ever wrote.

The Symphony No. 2 in D major was the main work on this week’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra program helmed by Herbert Blomstedt.

The Swedish conductor, 92, appeared even more spry and energetic Thursday night than at his last local stand in 2018. Conducting sans baton as is his custom, Blomstedt led the entire program standing, directing with a range of economical cues, gestures, finger flicks and wavy motions. A couple tuttis could have been more scrupulously groomed, but for the most part Blomstedt’s minimalist style drew responsive and surprisingly incisive playing from the orchestra.

This was notably robust and big-boned Brahms yet always with a fluent, forward-moving pulse under Blomstedt. The first movement’s lyrical second theme—a close relative to Brahms’ famous Lullaby— sang out with dark, resplendent tone by the cellos and the wind principals sounded an aptly bucolic touch.

David Cooper’s atmospheric horn solos were exquisite throughout, not least in the opening bars of the Adagio. Other conductors have plumbed a greater depth of feeling in this movement, yet Blomstedt’s flowing tempo and warmly moulded phrasing, and the sensitivity of the orchestra playing conveyed the requisite sense of relaxed introspection.

The woodwinds fully inhabited the rustic charm of the Allegretto— grazioso as marked—and the fitful bursts of nervous energy. In the finale, Blomstedt was careful to give the contrasting episodes their full due in between the exuberant main theme, ratcheting up the tension to a blaze of triumphant exhilaration in the final bars.

The conductor graciously shook hands with all of the front desk string players and gave a wave to the basses, before turning around to acknowledge the roaring ovations and applause.

Bertrand Chamayou performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

The first half offered an impressive CSO debut with Bertrand Chamayou as solo protagonist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major.

The Toulouse-born soloist showed himself a fine Mozartian with light-fingered articulation in the outer movements and bringing poised introspection to the Adagio. The finale was off to the races at  a swift tempo, Blomstedt providing his soloist with rollicking, full-bodied support with all principal woodwinds on deck this week.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday.; 312-294-3000.

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