Dohnányi, Ax open CSO’s Ravinia season with two Thirds of Beethoven

July 12, 2013
By Michael Cameron

Christoph von Dohnányi and Emanuel Ax shake hands following the performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the CSO Thursday night at Ravinia. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Everything about the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s opening night at Ravinia Thursday unfolded with an orthodox and comfortable splendor. The grounds seemed more exquisitely manicured and vividly hued than ever, the well-heeled lawn patrons merrily debuted yet another vintage chardonnay, and mother nature dutifully supplied clear skies and (for mid-July) implausibly polite temperatures.

Pianist Emanuel Ax returned for his 24th season at Highland Park, and while this was only Christoph von Dohnányi’s fourth appearance at the festival, his podium appearances with the world’s premier bands and superb recordings with the Cleveland Orchestra (among others) easily place him among the elites.

The program was the first of two all-Beethoven concerts on consecutive nights, with each featuring one symphony and one piano concerto, all products of a single extraordinary decade in the composer’s life. The two works Thursday were Beethoven’s third installment in each genre, the first movement of each is labeled Allegro con brio, and even the key signatures are a perfect match (Eb major and C minor). A true stickler for consistency would have scrounged up an arrangement of the opening Star Spangled Banner in Eb major, rather than the boorishly incongruous Bb.

As one might expect under these conditions, nearly every bar was tidy, polished, and precisely balanced. Yet live performances are never entirely predictable, and the many glories of this concert were compromised by intermittent missteps.

It may seem faint praise to label Emanuel Ax reliable, but he deserves this adjective for all the best reasons. His technique is impeccable, his knowledge of the repertoire is comprehensive, and his readings call attention to the skill and imagination of the composer rather than to himself. The opening movement of the concerto had much to admire, but his best efforts were often undermined by Dohnányi.

The indication “con brio” can refer to a brisk tempo or high spirits, and usually both. The maestro’s sluggish take sported neither. Concerto performances can often benefit with clashing views from soloist and conductor, but on this occasion the discord was unworkable. Ax’s cadenza sparkled, the third movement Rondo shimmered, but the most inspired playing came in the middle Largo. Soloist and orchestra traded pliable, lyrical phrases, with none of the awkward dissention that marred other moments in the concerto.

The Eroica Symphony was also uneven in its pleasures, but high points were far more plentiful. The Allegro con brio stayed true to its name, sporting a brisk tempo and infectious dash, and always with keen attention given to the underlying formal skeleton. The Scherzo was a joy, nimble but not excessively so, and with a boisterous horn trio that was blessedly free of the distress that similar passages have caused in recent seasons. Nearly every variation in the finale was characterful and vigorous, especially those conceived in a rustic vein. Sadly, the final bars were undercut by Dohnányi’s erratic pullback, an anticlimactic misstep that led to confusion in orchestra and audience alike. Oboist Eugene Izotov was notable among all of the fine woodwind standouts.

The most memorable moments came in the Marcia funebre, one of Beethoven’s most daring and subversive creations. Though widely and justifiably acclaimed, at nearly twenty slow minutes it is a supreme challenge for conductor and orchestra alike. The opening tempo seemed spot-on, and the 83-year-old maestro subtly shifted gears up and down to reflect each distinct transition. One could swear that a chill swept in from the lake in the final bars as the strings traversed their slow descent to a solitary and barely audible tympani stroke. For all the pomp and ceremony of the affair, that lonely stroke spoke loudest.

Christoph von Dohnányi, Emanuel Ax and the CSO will perform Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 and Piano Concerto No. 5 Friday at 8 p.m. at Ravinia.


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