Bernard Haitink regrettably had to back out of this week’s Chicago Symphony concerts for health reasons; while this was certainly cause for disappointment amongst concertgoers, it was largely allayed by the distinguished substitute to be found in James Conlon, who certainly knows this orchestra inside and out, having previously served as music director of the CSO’s summer residency at Ravinia for over a decade. He presented deeply probing works of Schubert and Mahler, demonstrating the intimate connection he has built with these musicians over the years.

James Conlon © Robert Millard
James Conlon
© Robert Millard

Eerily foreboding sounds in the low strings opened Schubert’s Symphony no. 8 in B minor, invariably known as the “Unfinished”. Wonderfully clear and lucid playing from the clarinets complemented the strings, and in due course the cellos brought forth a gorgeously songful melody. This was a testament to Schubert’s fertile creativity and fecund imagination as moments before the cellos had been used in the seemingly bottomless darkness of the opening. Conlon embraced the repeat of exposition, a wise interpretative choice given the movement’s massive sense of proportion, and a preparation for the intense drama of the development. Regrettable, then, that the movement’s quietly mysterious conclusion was marred by a disastrously timed cell phone ring.

The horns were a little out of tune in the second movement’s beginning, but this was quickly resolved, yielding an atmosphere of untroubled, E major serenity. The principal winds each had solo passages and collectively were on very strong form. Peaceful as the movement may be, it was not without ample drama, but in a much more understated way than one would find in Beethoven, for instance. While the debate continues over whether or not this symphony is actually unfinished, under Conlon’s baton the two extant movements made for a very satisfying whole.

Mahler’s incomparable Das Lied von der Erde made up the bulk of the program, easily the composer’s most personal and inward-looking work. Comprised of six songs with texts lifted from German translations of Chinese poetry, they are deftly arranged so as to form a coherent symphonic arc in this ingenious melding of symphony and song cycle. Vocal duties alternated between mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly and tenor Stephen Gould.

It was announced from the stage that Gould was suffering from a cold; this was unfortunately apparent in the opening “Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde” which makes substantial vocal demands, lacking the projection over the very large orchestra one would otherwise expect from this heldentenor. A highpoint of the song is the recurring phrase “dunkel ist das Leben ist der Tod”, pushing the upper limits of the tenor’s range increasingly higher in each reappearance, yet absent was a true Mahlerian sense of struggle. Still, given his less than ideal health, one couldn’t help but admire his stamina. Mahler was a composer who featured prominently in Conlon's Ravinia programs, and he negotiated the dense orchestrations with aplomb and direction in this truly symphonic opening song. Above all, it was clear how Mahler utterly courses through the veins of both orchestra and conductor.

The inner songs were somewhat lighter fare when compared to the weighty outer movements, but served to offer great stylistic variety. Forlorn, lonesome playing in the oboe from Alex Klein opened "Der Einsame im Herbst", a platform for Connolly to display her velvety voice in what was largely a very successful CSO debut. Mahler's faux-orientalism was most overt in the pentatonicism of "Von der Jugend", Gould rather more convincing here in his playful singing of the vigor of youth. Connolly conveyed porcelain delicacy in "Von der Schönheit" while the more animated passages offered orchestral brilliance. Gould had projection concerns in "Der Trunkene im Frühling", but I was nonetheless quite taken by the weight he mustered for the climactic “mir ist als wie im Traum”. Trills in the orchestration gave the song an ineffable sense of fleeting, all too brief in its vernal evanescence.

Occupying as much time and space as all the previous songs combined, the valedictory "Der Abschied" exists in a world of its own. The striking of the tam-tam invoked a newfound soundscape from the onset, and Klein shone again in a winding oboe line, as did Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson in an extended passage for solo flute. While others have perhaps mined greater profundity, Connolly was nonetheless deeply affecting, the rich lyricism of her voice well-suited to the Mahler’s autumnal farewell, building to the passionate climax that suggested rebirth but ultimately fading away in the otherworldly invocation of “ewig…ewig…”, and in the moments after the sound died away, Conlon held the audience in rapt, reverential silence.