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CSO’s all-Russian program short on interpretative fire

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Chicago Symphony Orchestra

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Updated: December 19, 2012 12:40PM



In keeping with its historic national character, Russian classical music offers some of the repertoire’s most romantic and emotional works as well as some of the most challenging and revolutionary.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s all-Russian program this week offers the full range of these impulses. Wednesday night at Symphony Center, however, the three featured works received middle-of-the-road interpretations from regular guest conductor Charles Dutoit, neither pushing the program’s showstopper quality nor offering the sort of rigorous examination that can reanimate staples.

There really is not much to say about Mussorgsky’s “A Night on Bald Mountain,” heard here in the standard Rimsky-Korsakov orchestration, except that Walt Disney and Deems Taylor were right: Its spookiness and drive anticipated cinema and made it a perfect choice for the closing of the film “Fantasia” (1940). With the CSO’s low brass, it’s hard to go wrong in the sonic department.

The near annual trotting out of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 is almost a ritual for introducing or highlighting the next virtuoso discovery. It’s a mistaken gamble, because unlike Beethoven’s concertos, for example, this work almost completely stands or falls on the soloist. The soloist here is 21-year-old Russian Daniil Trifonov, a top winner in three recent international piano competitions and a fourth-year student of Sergei Babayan at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Cut past the industry’s attempt to promote this engaging young man as the next Evgeny Kissin, etc., and you have a multiple competition winner who is still a student, albeit a very gifted one, of his instrument.

Trifonov played loud, he played soft, he alternated between loud and soft. He played fast, he played slow, he alternated between fast and slow. The soft and slow parts were often beautiful; they just had very little to do with the written score or with the way the work requires shape and arc. With several principal wind players sitting out this piece, the importance of these parts in the brief low movement was highlighted, alas.

Trifonov did deliver some major goods, however, in a solo encore of Guido Agosti’s virtuosic setting of the Infernal Dance from Stravinsky’s “The Firebird.” Here in five intense minutes were much of the energy, mastery, daring and just plain wild craziness that Trifonov and Dutoit had drained from the Tchaikovsky.

It’s the season for another Stravinsky work, “The Rite of Spring,” the still shocking ballet and score that had its premiere almost 100 years ago in Paris. The CSO is the orchestra to play this piece, with 100 plus giving their considerable all, starting with David McGill’s untouchable bassoon solo, through every section and sound.

I tend to avoid national characterizations with conductors or soloists. In this case, though, Dutoit did give us a rather Swiss “Rite,” proper, well-paced and supported, but lacking fire and intensity or the steady pulse and tight rhythmic control that David Roberston achieved here with the CSO two years ago. The work will be heard again in two “Beyond the Score” presentations this weekend.

What more can be said about the continuing and serious problem of the orchestra’s principal horn? For now, only that the sky fell again Wednesday night in the Stravinsky, and no one did anything about it.

Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).



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