Dohnanyi and Ax team up for compelling evening of Brahms at Ravinia

July 15, 2011

Christoph von Dohnanyi led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in an all-Brahms evening Thursday night at Ravinia. Photo: Heinrich Hamburg Studio

There are few more congenial musical combinations than the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Johannes Brahms. Add a perfect summer evening with Christoph von Dohnanyi, one of the past half-century’s greatest conductors, on the podium, and all the ingredients were in place for one of those much-hyped “great nights at Ravinia.”

In fact, Thursday night’s Ravinia concert turned out to be a truly memorable evening of music-making, the first of two all Brahms programs with von Dohnanyi and pianist Emanuel Ax joining forces with the CSO in Highland Park.

Emanuel Ax

Ax is one of our finest keyboard artists but I’ve often found him more convincing in Mozart and Chopin than the big Romantic concertos, his amiable musical personality lacking an essential edge and danger.

Not this time. While there were some fleeting solo imprecisions in the opening movement, the performance of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 served up by Ax, von Dohnanyi and the CSO was as complete a rendering as one is ever likely to hear—-rich, impassioned and eloquent, with quite glorious playing by the CSO members under Dohnanyi’s authoritative direction.

From the fiery opening tutti, this immensely challenging work — interpretively as well as technically — seemed to unfold naturally with all requisite drama and power. As expected Ax brought an affecting sensitivity to the lyrical moments, as with his inward rendering of the first movement’s secondary theme and the poised and tender introspection of the Adagio.

Yet he also brought the requisite heft to the outer movements, with bracing fire and drama to the opening and assertive conviction to the closing Rondo.

Dohnanyi directed with innate authority in a fluent, refined performance that yet had vital power and combustibility. Rarely will one hear all the variegated aspects of this work come across so vividly and with such eloquence and dramatic impact.

The playing of the CSO was on a similarly inspired level as the soloist with notable contributions from the horn section players as well as the woodwinds. Dohnanyi split the violins, with cellos in the middle and basses far left, which made for a lean, burnished sonority that had weight but never felt heavy.

If anything, the performance of Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 that followed was even more impressive. The 81-year-old conductor’s way with Brahms is fractionally slower than what we have become used to, but felt wholly organic. Dohnanyi’s scrupulous balancing ensured that everything emerged clearly yet there was nothing pedantic and the music had a sense of inevitability and rightness.

The pastoral qualities of the symphony shined but there was also vital punch in tuttis. Taken at a flowing tempo, the Adagio was expressive yet unsentimental and given fine advocacy, the usual inconsistent playing from the principal horn apart.

The CSO woodwinds brought out the bucolic felicities of the Scherzo winningly. The finale began at a stately pace but built to the blazing brassy coda — Brahms’ most exultant inspiration — with a steady cumulative impact that made for a conclusion both exciting and satisfying.

Christoph von Dohnanyi leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 and Piano Concerto No. 2 with Emanuel Ax as soloist 8 p.m. Friday at Ravinia.; 847-266-5100.

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