After devoting the previous three weeks to sprawling symphonies by Mahler, Shostakovich, and Bruckner, the CSO found itself in a very different form this week under Harry Bicket in a program anchored on music of the Baroque. With Bicket's sensitive leadership, the CSO proved equally adept in this repertoire.

Rameau is regrettably not a name one encounters often on concert programs nowadays, and even less so outside the opera house. A tip of the hat then to Bicket for opening the concert with a suite from Rameau's opera Platée. Dance is the heart of virtually all of Rameau's operas, so this suite was comprised of various dances. It began with a tempestuous Orage, making use of a wind machine as the storm came to life in this evocative vignette. Two airs followed embodying a unique sound world of their own marked by sighing, descending minor seconds. Lively pairs of minuets and rigadouns rounded off the suite, played with a rhythmic vitality that brought these dances to life. Rameau, and the Poulenc that followed, served as an appropriate prelude to the CSO's "Reveries and Passions" festival of French music, whetting one's appetite for all things Gallic.

Mahan Esfahani © Bernhard Musil | DG
Mahan Esfahani
© Bernhard Musil | DG

The other echt-Baroque work on the program was Bach's Orchestral Suite no. 3. It began with a stately, extended introductory movement, replete with dotted rhythms in the style of the French overture. The famous air provided by far the most familiar notes of the evening, the sumptuous main melody beautifully led by concertmaster Robert Chen. Next came the gavotte, especially notable for sterling playing by the ever-dependable principal trumpet Christopher Martin. A brief but lively bourée and gigue brought the suite to an energetic close.

Stravinsky's little-known final composition, dating from 1969 and reportedly completed in the hospital, are transcriptions of four of the preludes and fugues from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, published in 2012. The magisterial B minor prelude and fugue that closes Book I is arranged for strings alone; in others the prelude are presented in the strings while the fugue is handled by a wind ensemble. Stephen Williamson's clarinet contributions were especially commendable. It was an intriguing way to hear these pieces afresh with the voices distributed amongst the various instruments in this veritable musical pointillism. Whereas Stravinsky once famously drastically morphed strains of Pergolesi into Pulcinella, here he remained painstakingly faithful to Bach's originals in a touching tribute from one great master to another.

The real discovery Thursday night was the Concert champêtre, Poulenc's harpsichord concerto. The impetus to write such a piece came from his close friendship with Wanda Landowska, who was singularly responsible for reintroducing the harpsichord to modern audiences. Soloist Mahan Esfahani made his US orchestral debut, substituting for an indisposed Kristian Bezuidenhout. Born in Tehran in 1984, Esfahani grew up in the United States and has established himself as one of the harpsichord's most fervent champions.

The concerto is a neoclassical homage to music of an earlier time, but without forsaking musical conventions of the 1920s, filled with piquant sonorities that would have shocked Baroque audiences. The main problem with writing a harpsichord concerto is maintaining balance between modern orchestra and an instrument that by its essence doesn't project well. This makes writing such a piece something of dubious proposition to begin with; Poulenc solves the problem with his skillfully transparent orchestration and by generally pitting the harpsichord against various chamber combinations rather the the whole orchestra at once.  With Bicket and Esfanahi's sensitivity to the issue, proper balance was well achieved. 

After a solemn introduction, the first movement plunges forward with an effervesence and pure joie de vivre that characterizes much of the piece. In the second movement sicilienne, the harpsichord is most often relegated to an arpeggiated accompaniment. The finale begins with a passage for solo harpsichord, vaguely reminiscent of a Scarlatti sonata. We often hear bugle calls, creating the pastoral atmosphere suggested by the concerto's title. Despite its ebullience, the work ends abruptly on a much darker note.

Notwithstanding a somewhat tepid reception, Esfahani presented an encore in Rameau's Gavotte and Variations from the A minor suite of the Pièces de clavecin. This is one of few pieces of Rameau that has found its way into the repertoire of many keyboardists. It's an impressive piece, and it was certainly interesting to hear it on the instrument for which it was originally envisioned. Here, as with the Poulenc, one was really taken by Esfahani's virtuosity and unfailing command of his unusual instrument. Never mind the NFL draft happening concurrently a few blocks down Michigan Avenue – my pick is Esfahani.