Dvořák The Golden Spinning Wheel
Berlioz Les nuits d’été
Shostakovich Symphony No. 1
Elder Conducts Dvorák, Berlioz, and Shostakovich
Sir Mark Elder led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra this evening in a generally very enjoyable selection of somewhat lesser-known works by prominent composers from outside the standard Germanic tradition. The program opened with one of Antonín Dvorák’s late tone-poems based on Czech poetry, The Golden Spinning Wheel, Op. 109. This is an exquisite piece, full of beauty and charm, with the folksy melodic idiom recognizable from Dvorák’s more familiar (and, dare I say, over-played, particularly compared to some of the composer’s other output) “New World” Symphony and “American” String Quartet. In some ways, Dvorák seems more comfortable here than in the more formally-constricting symphonic form, and his wonderful senses for melody and color come to the fore, all with great warmth and spontaneity – it’s a shame this work isn’t played quite as often as the more famous symphonies.
Sir Mark led a grandly Romantic account, lush and disciplined rather than charmingly rustic and spontaneous. The latter two traits may be more in keeping with the spirit of the piece, but with the appropriately gorgeous and refined playing the CSO gave him, I won’t complain – and as one would expect of this orchestra, the work’s rich brass chorales were delivered impeccably.
The Dvorák was followed by another work notable for its color, Hector Berlioz’s early song-cycle Les nuits d’été (Summer Nights), Op. 7, set to French verses by the composer’s friend Gautier. Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote was featured as soloist in these six atmospheric, wistful, and melancholy songs. She gave a gripping reading of the whole cycle, but her dark timbre and keenly dramatic delivery were most impressive in the more morbid inner songs: her voice rose to great power in the climaxes of Sur Les Lagunes (On the Lagoons) and become intensely pleading in Absence. Some moments might have benefited from a bit more charm from both soloist and orchestra – the conductor didn’t always linger as much as the music seemed to ask for – but on the whole the songs were performed most sympathetically, with a powerful cumulation in the final song, L’île inconnue (The Unknown Isle).
Last on the program was Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 10. Shostakovich wrote this first of his 15(!) symphonies while in conservatory at the age of 19; in its detail and long-term dramatic structure it is impressive achievement for a 19-year-old. It’s typical Shostakovich, with less deep angst than some of the composer’s more troubled later music but much of the his trademark sarcasm. (Why sarcasm is considered a positive musical trait, I have never been able to understand; but it’s something Shostakovich probably came as close to perfecting as anyone.) The young Shostakovich was clearly trying to show off his command of the orchestra, and there are moments when pursuit of orchestral effects interferes with musical coherence; Shostakovich also characteristically over-indulges in exaggerated Mahlerian bombast. In short, don’t expect tenderness or subtlety in this music!
Yet, as was clear from the introductory remarks he made to audience, Sir Mark Elder clearly feels close to this piece and gave it what was in some ways the most involved performance of the evening; the CSO played with great verve and musicality and relished all the garish showpiece sections. A rather jarring end to the show after the gentler Romanticism of the Dvorák and Berlioz, then, but on the whole it was an engaging concert.
Date Reviewed: November 29, 2012
At Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL, call 312-294-3000, www.cso.org, tickets $24-$212, Nov. 30 at 1:30 PM and Dec. 1 at 8:00 PM