Chen delivers consummate Bruch performance with Janowski, CSO

Sat Nov 06, 2021 at 11:48 am

By Katherine Buzard

Robert Chen performed Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with Marek Janowski conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Friday afternoon. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Marek Janowski returned to the helm of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra this week to present a straightforward program of familiar fare. These concerts mark his first visit to Orchestra Hall since his 2018 CSO debut.

Though Janowski’s arrival was somewhat imperiled by pandemic-related travel restrictions, the chief conductor of the Dresden Philharmonic luckily received his visa just in the nick of time, a mere four days before his departure.

Mendelssohn’s evocative Hebrides Overture, inspired by his trip to the rugged Scottish coast. Conducting from memory, Janowski was understated in his gestures at Friday’s matinee, trusting the orchestra to continue once he set them on their trajectory, apart from vigorously gesturing to elicit more volume from various sections when needed.

While accomplished and pristinely presented with impeccable string ensemble and an especially delicate clarinet duet, the interpretation lacked some of the mystery and drama one expects from this atmospheric music. The opening tempo was also on the faster side, which made the rolling wave motif seem more bucolic than foreboding. 

Though Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy would have made more sense programmatically, we were instead treated to Bruch’s famous Violin Concerto No. 1 with longtime CSO concertmaster Robert Chen as the violin soloist. 

Chen gave a consummate performance of the beloved concerto, lending the lively virtuosic passages shape and finesse instead of merely sawing away at them. He especially excelled in the Adagio, imbuing the lyrical passages with a tastefully chosen, heartbreaking portamenti that would have made Heifetz proud.

Chen’s intimate working relationship with the orchestra was evident, as he communicated with the other musicians more so than other soloists might. His sensitive ensemble playing, however, meant that he sometimes got lost in the orchestral texture, especially in the bustle of the first movement and the end of the finale. 

Nevertheless, his humility and collegiality were refreshing, and it was notable that he heartily acknowledged the orchestra first before turning to the audience when he reentered for his second ovation—an acknowledgement that was well deserved.

Janowski, a noted interpreter of the music of the German tradition, particularly that of the late Romantic era, seemed to be especially in his element in the Bruch, allowing for more space around the music than in the Mendelssohn or, later, in the Mozart symphony. One of the most affecting moments of the concert came in the Adagio, when a stunning sotto voce entrance in the orchestra blossomed into the most luscious sound.

Concluding the program was another perennial favorite, Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, the so-called “Jupiter” symphony. Though deemed “a masterwork of unrestrained joy” in the CSO’s press release, this performance was fairly staid and by the book except in the tempo choice of the finale. 

Janowski’s trust of the orchestra was evident through his economy of gesture and movement in a flawlessly executed opening movement. The inner movements were not quite as tight rhythmically, as there seemed to be some disagreement on tempo between the orchestra and the podium.

The final movement was more exciting and certainly put the woodwinds—a key fixture of Mozart’s late symphonies—through their paces. Janowski’s caffeinated tempo induced the orchestra to play on the front of the beat but never to the point where it sounded frantic. 

However, the rapid cascading figures, which are comparatively easy for the string players, posed more of a technical challenge for the woodwinds at this tempo. Luckily, they were up to the challenge, playing with brilliantly clear articulation and musicality regardless. 

Janowski pushed ever-so-slightly faster in the repeats, which made for thrilling listening and increased demands  on the players—something that would have been to Mozart’s liking, given his devilish sense of humor.

This program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Chen delivers consummate Bruch performance with Janowski, CSO”

  1. Posted Nov 08, 2021 at 3:17 pm by Christian Vinyard

    This is a nicely done report. I was there and agree with most of what you say. Thanks. Chris

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