Chicago Classical Review » » Tetzlaff delivers fuel Bartók, Gardner ignites Vaughan Williams with CSO

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By Lawrence A. Johnson

Christian Tetzlaff performed Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2 with Edward Gardner conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Thursday evening. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Thursday night’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert, conducted by Edward Gardner, brought outstanding performances across a varied program. Yet it also raised concerns that had nothing to do with the quality of the musicians’ playing.

Along with the rows of unsold seats on the lower balcony, the upper balcony was virtually empty. Admittedly, the three works of the evening may not have been familiar to those who only want to hear Beethoven or Tchaikovsky. But it was a rich and accessible program of music by Wagner, Bartók and Ralph Vaughan Williams, which anyone with open ears and minds would have greatly appreciated.

The dozens of vacant seats were shocking. What causes this? Audience musical conservatism? Justified concerns about downtown crime and violence? Ticket prices? Sudden inflation and dismal economy? Lingering fears about Covid? A long-lasting global cultural dumbing down? All the foregoing?

The half-empty house was particularly daunting for such an engaging program, including the explosive rendition of Bela Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2 by Christian Tetzlaff.

Written for a large orchestra and spanning nearly 40 minutes, Bartók’s concerto bears a superficial resemblance to the romantic violin concertos of the 19th century; the tender theme of the central variations echoes something of this tradition.

But Bartók’s quirky, individual music and writing largely avoids such associations. It’s restless, eerie, and dark music, steeped in piquant Hungarian folk melodies, twisted chords for the soloist, and occasional contouring tonality. As the music jumps from idea to idea, the mercurial score almost feels like a subversive blunder on the grand concerto – shaking up proceedings with a nasty harmonic backflip here or teasing us with a big arching theme in the orchestra there, only to have the soloist reinstated with a sardonic comment.

Christian Teztlaff proved an ideal solo protagonist. The German violinist’s lean, astringent tone and edgy virtuosity suited this bright but cutting score well, and he brought out the folksy touch. verbs influence with all the necessary color and unbridled intensity.

Yet he also brought gentle expression to the (ephemeral) moments of lyrical rest—as with the fragile delicacy in his rendition of the Andante tranquillo’s main theme, flowing seamlessly into the more aggressive variations that followed. The soloist brought his signature fire to the finale, launching the thorny fireworks with startling bravery in an engaged and compelling performance.

Gardner’s somewhat equivocal stick style seemed to produce a few messy moments during transitions. But for the most part, he pulled polished, powerful playing from the orchestra. This shape-shifting concerto may sound discursive, but Gardner led the CSO in a tense and focused performance. The violence of the explosive tuttis sometimes suggested a pumped-up Hungarian grunge band.

The enthusiastic ovation brought Tetzlaff back for an encore. The violinist offered the Andante from Bach’s Sonata No. 2 in A minor, BWV 1003, rendered in an intimate but unsentimental style.

The concerto was preceded by the Prelude to Act III of Wagner’s work Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Besides overtures, isolated excerpts from Wagner’s operas are somewhat frowned upon in some circles in these musicologically grave times. But music as magnificent as this should always be heard widely when productions of Wagner’s vast stage works are few and far between.

Gardner conducted a spacious reading, with the cellos’ beautifully polished introduction of the ruminative main theme, and the eloquent and seamless playing of the five horns.

While a long standard repertoire in his native England, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ nine symphonies continue to be oddly overlooked on this side of the pond. The CSO has performed all of its symphonies at least once, but the last release of any of these works was 12 years ago.

Congratulations therefore to the programmers of the CSO for having marked this 150th anniversary of the birth of Vaughan Williams with his Symphony n° 5, which concluded the evening.

Skeptics may scoff at the English pastoral tradition as a “cow looking over a fence” school of music. But while much of this score is indeed slow, gentle and contemplative, there are also darker shadows in this wartime work (first premiered in 1943).

Gardner conducted a polished and wholly idiomatic rendition of this British masterpiece. While conveying the elements of peaceful rest and the atmosphere of the English countryside, it also brought out firmly the symphonic force of the composer’s writing, and the climax of the first movement had an intimidating punch. The Scherzo went with an almost nautical momentum, with the ominous malaise of the mid-section conveyed by the trombones.

The spiritual dimension of the Romanza – the main theme was adapted from the composer’s then unfinished opera The pilgrim’s journey– was particularly palpable in this performance, as conveyed by Scott Hostetler’s atmospheric English horn solo.

It’s a testament to the flexibility of CSO musicians that they can play so convincingly and with such idiomatic feel in music they haven’t touched in 12 years. The radiant string playing really soared throughout this performance.

The refined corporate tone made the variations of the final Passacaglia shine with a warmth of expression. Gardner may have slowed down the last section a bit too much; here, a smoother tempo can make the waves of overlapping strings and silent coda all the more touching.

This quibble aside, it was a beautiful and rich interpretation of the music of a great English composer whose music Chicago should hear more often. Maybe Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony Where Antarctic Sinfonia can be planned for a next season.

The program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. cso.org

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