A cellist’s heartening debut and fast and furious Mahler with CSO

Fri Oct 27, 2023 at 1:01 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Jian Wang performed Bloch’s Schelomo with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Nuccio DiNuzzo

Music of Gustav Mahler framed a rare concertante work for cello at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert led by Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider Thursday night.

This week’s program is the first of the Danish musician’s two CSO podium stands this season. An acclaimed violinist before taking up the baton, he will return in May to perform double duty as soloist as well as conductor.

The evening led off with Mahler’s Blumine. Mahler originally had inserted this existing work into his Symphony No. 1. Yet after hearing a few performances, he soon realized the music didn’t fit with the other four movements—being scored for smaller forces and “insufficiently symphonic.”

The composer’s decision was undoubtedly the correct one, but Blumine (Flowers) is a lovely miniature and made a complementary  prelude to Mahler’s First Symphony on the second half. Szeps-Znaider led a flowing account that elided the schmaltz. The innocent essence of this lyrical idyll was nicely conveyed by solos from principal trumpet Esteban Batallan and oboist Lora Schaefer.

At a time of renewed war in the Middle East and roiling international tensions, it was a heartening experience to see and hear the celebrated Chinese cellist Jian Wang perform such an innately Jewish work as Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo. 

A concert-hall mainstay of the mid-20th century, Bloch’s “Hebraic Rhapsody” hasn’t been heard from the CSO since Yo-Yo Ma last performed it 16 years ago—likely because few cello soloists want to perform a 20-minute piece rather than a full-length concerto.

Schelomo is one of several Bloch works dating from his “Jewish period,” in which the Swiss-American composer explored his roots in a variety of compositions. Cast in a single movement, Schelomo has a generalized program in which the cello reflects the voice and thoughts of Solomon, the title Jewish king, while the orchestra paints “his age…his world…[and] his experience.”

Schelomo may not be a timeless masterpiece but Wang’s intelligent, deeply expressive performance Thursday night nearly convinced one that it is. In his belated CSO debut, the cellist brought a focused intensity and apt febrile quality to Solomon’s dark ruminations, with the slight trace of rawness in his burnished tone feeling wholly idiomatic. Wang showed easy fluency in the fast passagework and his impassioned yet nuanced phrasing and hairpin dynamics were put entirely at the service of the score. Wang rendered the final solo meditation in a hushed inward quality that brought rich eloquence to Bloch’s music. 

Szeps-Znaider led the orchestra in a fervent, full-blooded performance that supported the soloist while bringing out Bloch’s exotic scoring. The dramatic whipcrack tuttis at times recalled silver-screen Biblical epics of the 1950’s.

“My time will come,” Gustav Mahler wrote prophetically to his fiancee Alma Schindler in 1898 at a time when the composer’s music was received largely with indifference or bafflement.

Even Mahler likely would have been surprised by his Symphony No. 1 becoming as firmly entrenched a concert cornerstone as the most popular works in the genre by Beethoven or Brahms. Mahler’s First remains his most popular work, and deservedly so—for its thematic richness, quirky individuality, and audacious scoring for large orchestra, with a finale that delivers one of the most sonically resplendent and thrilling codas in all music.

Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider conducted the CSO in music of Mahler and Bloch Thursday night. Photo: Nuccio DiNuzzo

Szeps-Znaider showed himself a proficient Mahler guide in this hour-long work, if not a particularly subtle one. The performance began well with hushed, mysterious strings on the edge of audibility. Unfortunately, most of the woodwinds’ ensuing bird calls were bland and offhandedly loud, hardly conjuring up the magical atmosphere of nature slowly awakening. Trumpet lapses and a lack of violin cohesion didn’t help.

Just when one was beginning to think that the CSO needs a new music director on the job sooner rather than later, the playing settled down and acquired tighter grip, and the performance began to get on track. 

Favoring fleet tempos, Szeps-Znaider charted the first movement capably, with a thunderous climax and whirlwind coda that elicited premature applause. The ensuing second movement went with nautical elan, with the conductor pointing the contrast of the middle section, in which the players gave the Ländler-like music lilting charm.

Principal Alexander Hanna launched the dirge-like third movement with an understated rendering of the spectral double-bass solo. The dream-like procession of varied material passing by included a characterful account of what Leonard Bernstein termed the “Jewish wedding” music, and a sensitive drawing out of the elevated “Wayfarer” lied theme.

The final movement was off and running at a frantic pace. Szeps-Znaider’s fast-and-furious style and hard pushing of the percussion ran the risk of overkill as well as peaking too soon. Yet while keeping strong momentum, the conductor managed the contrasting episodes securely, drawing out yearning tenderness in the reprise of the jettisoned Blumine music.

The cumulative build to the affirmative final bars felt swifter than usual. Yet with all eight horns (and, curiously, one trombonist) standing as Mahler requests, the sonic spectacle of the blazing D-major coda was undeniably thrilling—making one forgive the conductor’s resurrection of Bernstein’s excess in adding the timpanis to the final two notes.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday. cso.org

Posted in Performances

11 Responses to “A cellist’s heartening debut and fast and furious Mahler with CSO”

  1. Posted Oct 27, 2023 at 4:22 pm by Randy Wilson

    It’s funny that the specter of Leonard Bernstein is invoked several times in this article. It was his NY Phil recording of the Titan that made me love the piece, some forty years ago. I saw CSO’s Friday matinee performance and found it infinitely more subtle and nuanced than the old Lenny record. (I also didn’t hear any trumpet splits.)

    Walking down Michigan Ave afterwards I overheard a conversation between two friends who were admiring the quiet repose of so much of the performance. I agreed with them. And we also talked about how this performance brought out some Beethoven in the piece that you don’t always hear.

    I loved it, was transported throughout, and (despite perhaps the loudest and rudest section mates I’ve ever endured in that hall) came away thoroughly thrilled and enriched.

  2. Posted Oct 27, 2023 at 4:35 pm by John

    Nice review. I agree that the Mahler was a very mixed experience. The second movement was terrific, the horns were amazing, and some parts had a lovely conversational style. The fourth movement was loud and vulgar in the extreme, especially the percussion.

  3. Posted Oct 28, 2023 at 1:24 am by Dan

    I personally found their performance of the Mahler to be rather sloppy, as you more lightly referenced happening in the first movement. I think there were several incorrect entrances throughout all of the movements. I got the sense that the orchestra and conductor weren’t having a tight rapport, and there was often uncertainty with entrances which led to sloppiness.

    The conductor’s facial expressions seem to limited to a charming smile, which is good for attracting a date, but not expressing the emotional range of Mahler’s 1st.

  4. Posted Oct 28, 2023 at 2:45 pm by Lawrence A. Johnson

    Leonard Bernstein’s 1960s set with the New York Philharmonic (mostly) was the first integral cycle of the complete Mahler symphonies (including the Adagio from No. 10) by a single conductor. Though it has been overshadowed by Bernstein’s second DG set, split between New York and Vienna, the original Columbia/Sony set still holds up very well.

    The DG set may have more modern digital sound but, for this listener, the 1960s performances are largely superior across the board–more straightforward, acutely attentive to Mahler’s markings, and with less of the emotional excess and indulgent extremes of Bernstein’s later Mahler.

    Subsequent remastered editions have greatly improved the analog 1960s’ sound. Finally, the most recent reissue has resurrected a bonus from the original LP box by including recorded reminiscences of Mahler by New York Phil musicians who played under him during Mahler’s brief tenure as music director–a fascinating historical document (also available online).

  5. Posted Oct 28, 2023 at 4:40 pm by Christopher Sheahen

    I too was at the Friday matinee. I enjoyed hearing the Bloch, live, for the first time. The contrast between the orchestra and the cellist was interesting. The Blumine was a nice concert opener. Mahler 1 is one of my favorites, and the CSO delivered a fine performance. I think the conductor’s tempo in the last movement worked well. It is an exciting piece.
    Nice review.

  6. Posted Oct 28, 2023 at 10:05 pm by \robert jones

    Saturday’s concert was probably the worst performance I’ve ever heard from the CSO. The Mahler was not just sloppy, as noted above, but it was devoid of color and life. It was simply loud and slow. The third movement was a perfect cure for insomnia

    This conductor should never “grace” Symphony Center again.

  7. Posted Oct 29, 2023 at 4:49 am by Denis P Bousquet

    I attended the final concert of students and St Louis Symphony members at Aspen in 1968. Concert concluded with a strong performance of Mahler’s 1st Symphony. As the work reached climactic final movement a storm was lifting tent edges and buffering the site, reaching climax at the rapturous horns concluding the majestic work. Thrilling! Unforgettable.

    I had a set of the earlier Bernstein recordings, treasured and only surpassed by that great, live performance in the Rockies!

  8. Posted Oct 30, 2023 at 11:18 am by David Dranove

    My wife and I were at the Saturday performance and we were also taken aback by the sloppy playing. What struck me the most, however, is that entire sections of Movements 1 and 3 that should have been moving instead seemed flat. It was almost as if the conductor was trying to get through them before getting back to the loud bits.

    The orchestra did deliver in the 4th movement, especially the coda. Sometimes I think that is what most of the audience really comes for. Sort of like sitting through a Celine Dion concert just to hear her end with the Titanic song.

  9. Posted Oct 30, 2023 at 10:03 pm by Charles Amenta

    I attended the Saturday performance, row H in the lower balcony, and found the pianissimi and the sustained tempi of the opening movement quite moving. There were no big fortissimi until Mahler called for them well into the recap. This was subtle and nuanced Mahler.

    So long as everyone is referencing Bernstein, he takes 19:35 in the finale of the Mahler 1st in the Vienna Phil. performance. On Saturday, Szeps-Znaider took a few seconds over 20 minutes. Obviously, that is a rough indication but …

    I have never understood what passage in Blumine is reprised in the finale. Maybe there is a turn shape. Maybe there is a rising phrase from the Blumine oboe solo. But this is so obscure to be almost meaningless. If someone can give measure numbers, I would be most grateful.

  10. Posted Nov 01, 2023 at 5:59 pm by Donuts 4 All

    I am only a regular concert goer. Many years ago, during the Haitink years, I attended a CSO concert under a very well known conductor, during which an entire section played out of character to show up the conductor. He never returned to Chicago again. This was the first and only time I experienced anger after a concert. It was obvious then that they really needed an MD urgently.

    A similar thought occured to me Thursday night. I hate to call someone out, but our new principal horn has been a thorough disappointment for me so far. His unwillingness to clean up his slurs is a major liability. The final page of the Mahler sounded atrocious because of it.

  11. Posted Dec 03, 2023 at 12:58 pm by Mark Sheldon

    I attended Thursday night. Jian Wang’s performance was deeply moving. I hope he returns often. Orchestra and conductor did beautifully. I agree that the Mahler had a choppy beginning. It seemed as though the different sections were out of balance. However, beyond the first five minutes of the first movement, I actually thought the performance was spectacular. I loved the volume and the energy in the last movement.

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