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A talented baritone but an untalented Beethoven 5 in CSO

Not even the leaves have changed and the Chicago Symphony has already given us one of the can’t-miss bills of the season.

On paper, this weekend cycle has two big draws. German baritone Christian Gerhaher, one of the greatest lieder performers of our time, rarely performs in the United States; These concerts are his second with the Chicago Symphony, performing Mahler’s “Des Knaben Wunderhorn”. His partner on the podium is a much more familiar face at Orchestra Hall, even if he is under new scrutiny: Outgoing New York Philharmonic music director Jaap van Zweden is one of the few conductors with the stature and program to replace Riccardo Muti as music director. Chicago Symphony.

Unfortunately, only Gerhaher fulfilled this expectation.

Between 1892 and 1901, Mahler compiled 12 folk poems from the collection “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (“The Magic Horn of Youth”); He was reinterpreting short sections from the songs he composed in the same period, from the Second Symphonies to the Fourth Symphonies. If Mahler’s symphonies, like his oft-repeated quotes, contain the universe, so does “Des Knaben Wunderhorn,” with its pendulum swinging from nursery rhyme naivety to morbid obsession.

The question then becomes which slice of the universe to sing about. Gerhaher’s own five selections were chosen as effectively as possible, progressing like the stages of grief. The childish idealism of “Rheinlegendchen” (“Legend of the Little Rhein”) and “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen” (“Where the Fair Trumpets Sound”) turned into the gunpowder- and adrenaline-fuelled fury of “Revelge” (“Reveille”). followed by the fear of “Der Tamboursg’sell” (“The Drummer Boy”). Finally, heavenly forgiveness arrives in the form of “Urlicht” (“Primal Light”), later reconceived as the fourth movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2.

Gerhaher has a solid and distinguished narrative presence; Everything is good-natured, nothing is tedious. Comparisons to his one-time teacher, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, might seem trite if the two baritones were not so uncanny in timbre and tone: oaky and harmonious and a lick of flame when called upon. (Gerhaher, who became interested in music later in life, admitted in interviews that he was estranged from Fischer-Dieskau: He was a medical student at the time and could not fit lessons with the legendary baritone into his busy exam schedule.)

These flames burned most prodigiously on “Revelge,” where the ends of words shot mockingly into the open air. They seduced with their ease in the slightly persuasive “Rheinlegendchen” and the blooming bell tones of “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen”. Where the phrases were pointed, Gerhaher tended to be swallowed by the orchestra, and he had already made a habit of playing under van Zweden’s kinetic rhythm. Van Zweden was cleanly meticulous with very lively accompaniment, despite some collective objections (none his own) in “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen” and “Urlicht”.

If Gerhaher’s “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” gave us a brief tour of the universe, Van Zweden’s Beethoven 5 left us in the middle of a battlefield and said “good luck” in the second half of the program.

Undoubtedly, interpreting Beethoven’s Fifth is not an enviable task. When faced with the single most iconic piece in all of classical music, the urge constantly beckons to either put it behind glass like a musical Gutenberg Bible or reinvent it wholesale.

Van Zweden’s Fifth did neither. His sledgehammer rendition extended the terror of the symphony’s iconic opening bars to 30 minutes.

My question is: why? Melodic lines had almost nowhere to go, and the symphony’s lyrical moments felt carved in marble, as did the secondary theme of the first movement – pearly but sharp-edged, the ending. Even the moments that almost softened themselves – like the reharmonizing of the violin theme at the end of the Andante con moto, the two melt-in-your-mouth bars of tenderness – were jaw-droppingly solid.

Meanwhile, conducting Beethoven 5 like a drill sergeant makes this score the only thing it isn’t: boring. The first movement’s furiously orchestrated coda, often a big, scary world coming into focus, feels like a sonic disaster. The ear, already shocked at that point, barely registered it. Not a single string of the third movement fugue was out of place; But what was missing from the action was the sense that their voices were part of a larger whole. In the final movement, the fourth of four movements taken at a rapid pace, the CSO paled in comparison to the intensity with which Van Zweden telegraphed from the podium. Frankly, who can blame them?

Outgoing New York Philharmonic music director Jaap van Zweden leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven's 5th Symphony on October 12, 2023.

Van Zweden’s Mahler 6 from two seasons ago likewise left me feeling more beaten than impressed. It may be exciting, but those thrills have been cheap when he’s been on the scene lately.

The exception was Nina Shekhar’s “Lumina,” which was a smash hit at this fortuitous concert. Shekhar is one of those rare composers who opens my ears a little more every time I listen to his music; The only similarity in his works so far is that he mostly writes in short form and since he is only 28 years old, we need to pay attention to the “so far” part.

“Lumina” begins and ends with a kind of auditory illusion, with the solo violin (associate concertmaster for these concerts Stephanie Jeong) imitating the sounds of string vibraphone and crotal. The concertmaster then introduces a minor triad motif sliding downwards; this is one of several Hindustani-inspired embellishments that trickle throughout the ensemble, along with curtain twists and turns. “Lumina’s” first major tutti floats blurryly over the ensemble with dark quarter-tone harmonies. Then comes a more determined arrival, with a melody screaming out from the strings; it too soon disintegrates, its shape traced by the woodwinds.

Shekhar’s sonic world is one you can enjoy. On Thursday, “Lumina,” which was nearly 13 minutes long, felt like it was ending too quickly indeed. Van Zweden, whose tenure at the New York Philharmonic revolved around CSO on the new music front, found his most palpable chemistry with the orchestra here. His rhythm, elegant but not missing a beat, kept Shekhar’s textures clear and – in fact – shiny.

The program is on Oct. 14 at 7:30 p.m. and Oct. 15 at 3 p.m. at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; tickets $45-$399; more information at cso.org.

Hannah Edgar is a freelance critic.

The Rubin Institute of Music Criticism helps fund our classical music coverage. The Chicago Tribune retains editorial control over assignments and content.

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