Chicago Symphony in New York – 2

Flute Concerto in G, K313
Soundings [New York premiere]
Symphony No.9 in C, D944 (Great)

Mathieu Dufour (flute)

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (piano)

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 4 November, 2005
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City

A sense of relaxed enjoyment permeated this the second program in the Chicago Symphony’s three-concert residency in New York, which opened with a sprightly and stylish account of Mozart’s G major Flute Concerto. The soloist, Mathieu Dufour, CSO principal flute, demonstrated astonishing breath control throughout the piece, spinning elegant and soaring musical lines, full of life and beauty. His articulate playing and the orchestra’s clear, sensitive accompaniment were in perfect balance.

The Mozart was followed by the New York premiere of Soundings, a lively ten-minute piece commissioned by the CSO from Elliott Carter, the 96-year-old American composer whose music Barenboim has zealously championed since they first met in 1994. The place was Chicago, and the occasion was the world premiere of Partita, which the CSO and Barenboim had commissioned. Since then Barenboim has conducted world premieres of Carter’s Cello Concerto and “Of Rewaking”, as well as CSO performances of Adagio tenebroso and Allegro scorrevole, which, together with Partita, make up the triptych Symphonia.

Some of Barenboim’s most memorable concerts with the CSO have been Mozart piano concertos in which he took the role of both conductor and soloist, and when Carter accepted the CSO commission to write something for Barenboim’s farewell season music director, he envisioned a piece in which Barenboim would both conduct and play the piano. According to a program note by Phillip Huscher, Barenboim at first had his doubts about the proposal. Serving as pianist and conductor in music as knotty and unpredictable as Carter’s would be a lot more difficult than in a Mozart concerto, scaled to an undersized orchestra and where, in Carter’s words, “everybody knows what is going to happen”. Carter solved the problem by organizing the music of Soundings so that the solo piano plays at the beginning and end of the work, and at one other time – briefly and early in the piece. The piano never sounds at the same time as the orchestra.

While the piece brims with audacity, playfulness, and layers of musical color, it avoids the confrontational exchanges between soloist and orchestra so characteristic of Carter’s concertos. The solo pianist is really not given a great deal to do. The piano thunders through the brief, opening bars, and from there on, the piece unfolds into an unpredictable pastiche of rapidly shifting musical ideas – the deep rumbles of a bass clarinet, the twittering of piccolos, an extended tuba solo that runs longer than the entire piano part, and a dazzling array of percussive effects. At the end, the piano sounds a single note and then stops. After a brief pause, the orchestra begins, and the piano interrupts, and so on in a playful series of stops and starts, until the pianist plays alone and stops on a final single note. The CSO musicians gave this vividly orchestrated piece an exciting, virtuosic performance, which went down well with the sold-out audience. The composer received a warm and extended standing ovation.

The concert closed with a vibrant, propulsive performance of Schubert’s ‘Great’ C major Symphony in which Barenboim brought out the finest from the CSO. The resonant brass was a noble and imposing presence, without being overwhelming, and the orchestra’s magnificent woodwind soloists played with the requisite bucolic joy that is so characteristic of this work, especially in the third movement. Barenboim’s brisk tempos and light textures kept the music flowing along smoothly. This was a fresh, dramatic, frequently exciting performance that regularly reminded one of the many virtues of this great work.

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