After last week’s jaunt in the English countryside, Sir Mark Elder continued his European travelogue in transporting Chicago audiences deep into the heart of Eastern Europe with Bartók’s fiendishly difficult Second Piano Concerto flanked by works of Dvořák and Janáček.  Once an orchestral staple – it was included in the CSO’s inaugural season – Dvořák’s flamboyant Scherzo capriccioso has since largely fallen out of vogue. Still, with its brilliant orchestration and memorable themes, it’s a work of immediate appeal.

Jeremy Denk © Michael Wilson
Jeremy Denk
© Michael Wilson
Energetic playing in the horns initiated things, soon to be answered by a more passionate theme in the strings. Scott Hostetler’s beautifully played English horn solo about midway through was a highlight in one of the piece’s more tranquil moments. Much of this exciting performance was marked by an interplay between brooding Slavic passion and joyous exultation.

I find Jeremy Denk’s stage presence to be more neurotic than charismatic, but this was well-suited to the nervous energy of the formidable solo duties in the Piano Concerto no. 2 by Bartók. This was the piece Bartók elected to bring in his only appearance with the CSO (1941), and it’s a work that pushes both pianist and orchestra to the limit. In it, there’s a persistent tension between the Carpathian folk traditions that were so important to him, and the more cosmopolitan modernism of Stravinsky.

The piano plays nearly continuously in the breathless first movement which Denk delivered with power and flair. The driving rhythms and chordal density of one of themes calls to mind the Danse russe from Stravinsky’s Petrushka, and Bartók relentlessly exploits the piano’s percussive potential. Bartók had a penchant for symmetry, and accordingly the recapitulation presented the opening themes in retrograde inversion.

The slow movement opened with otherworldly playing in the strings – their first appearance – in Bartók’s idiosyncratic night music. This gave way to a full-throttle scherzo, only for the night music to return: this central movement is itself symmetric, buttressing the arch form of the whole. The finale presented another anxious folk theme before the themes of the opening movement were reintroduced, transformed. Denk’s double octaves were an especially dazzling sight to behold, and seemingly no technical difficulty was too great for him to conquer with ease.

The second half was devoted to the eccentric soundworld of Janáček, of which Elder proved himself to be a master. The Suite from The Cunning Little Vixen offered most of the orchestral music from the opera’s first act. Elder elected to use the version edited by peerless Janáček interpreter Sir Charles Mackerras; derived from the version by Václav Talich (contemporary of Janáček and teacher of Mackerras), it significantly restores the text to Janáček’s original orchestration.

Unusual effects were achieved through col legno playing in the strings, and matters coalesced into a coloristic evocation of woodland creatures in this fantastical forest. Other themes suggested the opera’s libretto in the manner of a song without words, as per Janáček’s intuitive understanding of the rhythm and meter of the Czech language. Particularly affecting was a lush romantic theme in the strings, depicting the vixen’s yearning. As convincing as the suite was, it still left something to be desired – why not rectify the issue by inviting Elder to conduct the complete opera in a future season?

Despite his proud Czech origins, Janáček was an unapologetic Russophile. Taras Bulba, one of his first major orchestral scores, found its inspiration in Gogol’s tale of the same title. Cast in three movements, each focuses on the death of the work’s protagonists – the namesake Cossack and his two sons. “The Death of Andrei” began with a love theme in the English horn – what a night this was for the English horn! – later echoed in the violin by concertmaster Stephanie Jeong. Abrupt shifts in texture as only Janáček could manage, from violent depictions of battle to a plaintive prayer-like theme in the organ, made for a movement of stark contrasts.

Colorful writing for the harp made for another rich texture in “The Death of Ostap”, only to give way to a detached march theme as the titular figure is taken prisoner by the Poles, their victory asserted by way of a macabre mazurka. The low strings drag one down to the grave, Ostap’s screams chillingly brought to life through John Bruce Yeh’s clarinet. Although our hero too meets his end in “The Death and Prophecy of Taras Bulba”, he foretells an eventual Russian triumph. The sheer physicality of the muscular brass playing was palpable, and the might of the bells and the organ brought the work to an astoundingly glorious close.

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