Semyon Bychkov and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra presented a program steeped in the musical world of Brahms. Such programming raises the concern of a one-dimensional sort of concert, but thanks to the masterful and varied musical personalities on stage, the performers shared something totally engaging.

Opening the concert was Detlev Glanert’s Brahms-Fantasie for orchestra. One of four works commissioned by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra to be programmed with Brahms’ symphonies, this is an atmospheric work that pays appropriate homage to Brahms’ First Symphony (a similarly dynamic opening, traces of Hungarian music, a certain emphasis on the key of C) while still maintaining an independent identity. It was an interesting piece, perfectly apt for the evening’s program, and given a fine reading by the CSO. While not craving another listen to this work, I am interested to hear the other three pieces in the set.

Renaud Capuçon, Semyon Bychkov and the Chicago Symphony © Todd Rosenberg
Renaud Capuçon, Semyon Bychkov and the Chicago Symphony
© Todd Rosenberg

Renaud Capuçon joined Bychkov and the CSO for Brahms' Violin Concerto. Capuçon proved to be a very able soloist, with a full tone and technical panache. The challenging first movement was handled capably, but was not particularly inspired. Capuçon seemed a bit hurried, skidding just in front of the orchestra for the first moments after his entrance. Eventually the ensemble blended, but Capuçon’s instinct to rush didn’t allow time for the poetic turns of phrase offered throughout the movement. Bychkov and the CSO handled the accompaniment well, by contrast. Bychkov abandoned his baton to show more intimate direction, and was rewarded with some fine playing from the CSO. John Bruce Yeh’s clarinet solos were especially lovely throughout. The second movement provided much more musically satisfying playing from Capuçon. Following a tender oboe solo from guest principal Jonathan Fischer of the Houston Symphony, Capuçon entered with a lush sound, which developed into something quite special. His parlando treatment of the solo lines was very effective, giving a poignant, vocal quality to the violin writing. After this success came another in the last movement. Capuçon gave a gritty, energetic performance to end his rendition of the monumental concerto on a high note.

The culmination of the Brahmsian evening came after intermission with the composer’s Symphony no. 1 in C minor. Bychkov (baton back in hand) captained a rather massive ship, as evidenced by a towering opening from the CSO. The strings provided a soaring soundscape from the beginning, serving the ensemble well in Brahms’ rich writing. Bychkov was sure to mold this thick texture, sometimes holding a hand out to quiet one section and allow another to shine, or conversely egging a section on to encourage a musical line to blossom and embolden the ensemble. A highlight of this performance were the solos across each movement. Fischer again displayed excellent playing in his reading of the symphony’s oboe solos. In the second movement, Robert Chen rendered a masterful concertmaster solo, coloring the writing with a ravishing vibrato. The horn section also performed admirably throughout, and their principal, Daniel Gingrich, stole the show with his fourth movement solos. Gingrich punctuated the texture of the finale with a golden tone that was regal and commanding in its sheer power. Perhaps bolstered by Gingrich, Bychkov and the CSO were especially exciting to watch and listen in the final movement. They thrilled in the drive and excitement of the brilliant coda, and finished the symphony and evening triumphantly.