“I remember the piece as the best of my works before The Firebird”, reminisced Stravinsky in his 1960 autobiography Memories and Commentaries.  The piece in question was the elusive Chant funèbre, written in the wake of the death of his erstwhile mentor Rimsky-Korsakov in 1908.  After a single St. Petersburg performance in early 1909, the score was lost and remained unpublished, that is until a series of fortuitous events over a century later. Fall 2015 saw the St. Petersburg Conservatory undergo a renovation that necessitated the entire building to be emptied, and there in the vast troves of manuscripts Stravinsky scholar Natalia Braginskaya uncovered the long-lost score. The first contemporary performance was given last December by Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra. And on Thursday night, Charles Dutoit and the Chicago Symphony had the distinct honor of presenting its belated American première.

Charles Dutoit conducting Stravinsky's <i>Chant funèbre</i> © Alex Garcia
Charles Dutoit conducting Stravinsky's Chant funèbre
© Alex Garcia

A twelve-minute work, it’s more than a mere trifle or curiosity, but an essential piece of the puzzle in tracing Stravinsky’s musical development, from composer of a handful of early, largely inconsequential works, to composer of the watershed Firebird which sent shockwaves through the musical world. Chant funèbre opened with a rumbling in the low strings – not far-removed from the famous opening of The Firebird – introducing a glacial funeral procession of enormous power. In a particularly striking moment, nearly every instrument was given a solo passage, an homage to Rimsky-Korsakov’s incomparable mastery of orchestration. Though ending plaintively, it built to a Wagnerian sumptuousness, with an obvious and certainly apt nod to Siegfried’s Funeral March.

A much better-known quantity followed, Dvořák’s evergreen Cello Concerto with soloist Truls Mørk. Luminous clarinets articulated the first movement’s principal theme, setting up the justly celebrated horn solo. Mørk championed the work with a deeply burnished tone well-suited to its rich Romanticism, with Dutoit’s accompaniment sensitive and nuanced, if occasionally masking the soloist. A standout moment was in his duet with flutist Richard Graef, both parties purveying their potential for polished and lyrical playing.  The coda was given with a particular grandeur, fitting for such a grand movement. 

Charles Dutoit, Truls Mørk and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra © Alex Garcia
Charles Dutoit, Truls Mørk and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
© Alex Garcia

Opening with a choir of winds, the slow movement gave way to long, arching cello lines drawing out a sublime melody, although I did find Mørk’s vibrato a hair too much for my taste.  Despite the fact that Dvořák wrote the bulk of the concerto in the United States, it skirted the Americana of the New World symphony and other works contemporary, and the jaunty finale had a distinctively Slavic feel. In one of the movement’s more inward-looking moments, concertmaster Stephanie Jeong engaged in an intimate musical conversation with the soloist. There was yet another stroke of brilliance in the slow section that was introduced ahead of the coda, a moment of wistfulness before its requisite energetic close.

After the Czech intermezzo, the program ended in Russia where it began, though several decades later, with Prokofiev’s Symphony no. 5 in B flat. The moderate pacing of the opening movement bolstered the impact of its bold statements, burgeoning to a massive percussive peroration. The following movement was a frenetically paced and motoric scherzo, and boasted some flexible clarinet playing from Stephen Williamson. There was a pervasive air of unease in the rocking slow movement. Although Prokofiev’s grandiose and bombastic creation surely pleased the Soviet apparatchiks, here perhaps was a sign that all was not well beneath the surface. Quite the opposite was the found in the finale, celebratory and exultant.  There was more impressive passagework from Williamson, much less caustic than what was heard in the scherzo, and matters inexorably built to a climax visceral in the sheer force of impact.