After a truly memorable performance of Mahler’s Fifth last season while substituting for Jaap van Zweden on short notice, a proper invitation for Donald Runnicles to return to Chicago was in order. That came to fruition this week with a program of two landmark orchestral scores from 20th-century Britain along with a Strauss tone poem dating from the end of the previous century.

Donald Runnicles © Simon Pauly
Donald Runnicles
© Simon Pauly

Britten’s Sinfonia da requiem is a profound expression of his anti-war pacifism that would later be crystallized in the watershed War Requiem. Cast in three interconnected movements, each bears a title from the Christian liturgy despite the composers’ atheism. The Lacrymosa initiated matters in dramatic fashion with heavy strikes in the timpani and an ominously pulsating rhythmic gesture, later echoed in muted trumpets. The strings filled in and painted the contours of the movement in broad strokes. Sputtering flutes opened the Dies irae, and the usually clarion sound of the trumpets was morphed into a grotesque fanfare of war, eventually dissolving into the somber tones of J. Lawrie Bloom’s bass clarinet which left little room for optimism. Wistful flutes over the harp characterized the concluding Requiem aeternam and the music slowly dies away, tranquil in its ominous uncertainty.

After the CSO’s astounding take on Strauss’ Alpine Symphony just the previous week, one was delighted to see another Strauss tone poem on the program so soon, this time in Death and Transfiguration. The opening rhythm is asymmetrical, perhaps depicting an irregular heartbeat at end of life, as Mahler would later do in his Ninth Symphony. Solo passages for concertmaster Robert Chen were a highlight, played with true Straussian richness, and notable solo playing was also heard on the oboe.

The six note transfiguration theme, rising and then falling, is hinted in the flutes, and in due course the full orchestra was rallied for a proper statement of the theme, played with a burning passion. The magnificent blazing brass was another highpoint before the sound wondrously drifts away – unlike the Britten, here true, unqualified peace is achieved at the end of a life well lived.

Elgar’s Enigma Variations is a loving portrait of his circle of friends, many of whom would likely be forgotten but are now forever preserved and routinely brought back to life through music. The main theme (and perplexing source of the so-called enigma) radiated gracefulness. The arabesques of the second variation, “H.D.S.-P.” (Hew David Steuart-Powell) were effectively complemented by John Bruce Yeh’s fleeting clarinet. “Ysobel” (Isabel Fitton) was an amateur violist and pupil of Elgar, and accordingly her variation was anchored by Li-Kuo Chang’s viola solo.

As the heart of the piece, the justly famous “Nimrod” (representing Elgar's publisher Augustus Jaeger) was as lush and life-affirming as it should be. The delicate, featherlight textures of “Dorabella” (Dora Penny) made for a good-natured portrayal of the namesake’s stuttered speech, contrasted by the masculine drama of the following “G.R.S.” (George Robertson Sinclair, organist at Hereford Cathedral). “B.G.N.” was cellist Basil Nevinson, and principal John Sharp initiated matters to be joined in by the rest of the cello section in music of great nostalgia. The final variation E.D.U. is autobiographical, Edu being his wife's nickname for him, and there’s no mistaking that Elgar thought highly of his talents (and rightly so) as the work is brought to a suitably grandiose close.