Easter weekend saw the Chicago Symphony turn to spiritually-themed repertoire under the venerable direction of Charles Dutoit, in the second week of his annual residency.  The thoughtful programming choices avoided the cliché in an evening anchored by Fauré’s serene Requiem, prefaced by equally inward-looking works of Wagner and Honegger.

Wagner’s Good Friday Music from Parsifal was certainly topical, and indeed, the composer purported to have conceived of the opera on a particularly fateful Good Friday.  It began with a glowing brass processional, followed by some very fine passagework in the oboe from Alex Klein.  Unlike the perpetual tonal flux that dominates much of Parsifal, this excerpt was one of relative harmonic stasis to yield a contemplative serenity that persisted through the final chord, resounding as if in a cathedral.

Dutoit turned to fellow Swiss Honegger for the evening’s centerpiece and most intriguing discovery.  Written in the wake of the end of World War II – and in fact, completed on Easter Sunday, 1946 – Honegger’s Symphony no. 3 was his emotional and deeply personal response to the war.  Bearing the epithet “Liturgique”, each movement was appended a title from the Catholic liturgy, perhaps drawing comparison to Britten’s Sinfonia da requiem. The opening “Dies irae” was frighteningly aggressive, with screaming trumpets in a mechanistic depiction of a shattered world utterly turned upside down. There was a rhythmic suggestion of the inflections of the movement’s title, but like the rest of the symphony, it eschewed any direct musical quotes. After the unrelenting intensity, the movement came to an eerily quiet ending, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of the conclusion of T.S. Eliot’s “Hollow Men”: “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper”.

“De profundis clamavi” made up the core of the work, beginning with the beguiling colors of the strings and muted brass. Layers upon layers built to a shattering climax, and the movement closed with a mysterious birdsong in the flute, beautifully played by Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson. A grotesque, banal march in the bass clarinet and double basses introduced the concluding “Dona nobis pacem”. The intensity grew and grew to the point where the orchestra all but collapsed unto itself. While Honegger could have ended the symphony there, he ingeniously concluded instead with a subdued and plaintive paean. The lushness of the strings starkly contrasted the charred remains of the preceding, with concertmaster Robert Chen reaching to ethereal heights. The birdsong returned, this time even higher in the piccolo, as if floating above the rubble of a world that would never be the same again, an ending as cathartic as it was ominous.

Unlike the drama Mozart, Berlioz, or Verdi infused in their Requiems, Fauré opted for the restrained, a peaceful acceptance of the inevitable.  Dutoit elected to conduct without baton, instead relying on graceful gestures from his hands which seemed to add to the intimacy of the performance.  The “Introit and Kyrie” made for a stately opening with the organ adding to the solemnity, and the sterling chorus was of a singular seriousness of purpose. A wash of low strings began the “Offertorium”, and Matthias Goerne’s rich baritone served the solo passages well.  The violins made their intentionally delayed first appearance in the “Sanctus”, a particularly striking effect when combined with the female choristers.  Heft was added when the men joined in, buttressed by the horns and trumpets.

The famous “Pie Jesu” was the platform for Israeli soprano Chen Reiss to make her CSO debut. While there was an ineffable fragility, her full-bodied tone suggested more than mere childlike simplicity.  Following a heavenly “Agnus Dei”, Goerne returned to the spotlight for a darkly-hued “Libera me”.  The closing “In paradisum” was truly heavenly, from the unassuming broken arpeggios in the organ to the divine voices of the chorus, radiant and angelic.