Sir Andrew Davis is much admired here in Chicago having been the music director of Lyric Opera for the past 15 years, and it’s always a welcome opportunity to see him emerge from the orchestra pit and onto the podium at Symphony Center.  This he did Thursday night in a one-off performance headlined by star pianist Evgeny Kissin.  The concert began with Davis’ own orchestration of Bach’s incomparable Passacaglia and fugue in C Minor.  In his younger days, Davis was an organ scholar at King’s College, Cambridge, and it’s clear that this is a work he knows intimately.

Evgeny Kissin © Sasha Gusov
Evgeny Kissin
© Sasha Gusov

This transcription was a nice departure from the more familiar (and less faithful) one of Stokowski. It begins with the stately descending theme in the piano and cellos.  The piano is featured quite prominently throughout, recalling the piece’s origins at the keyboard.  The twenty variations that comprise the passacaglia made full use of the orchestra’s vast resources, giving each variation a distinct color using differing combinations of instruments.  Like a beam of white light being refracted through a prism, suddenly the full spectrum of colors could be achieved, heightening one’s anticipation for each ensuing variation.

The mighty fugue followed without break, using the same theme of passacaglia before introducing a secondary subject and two further countersubjects.  While the dense counterpoint can often sound muddied on the organ, spread throughout the orchestra each individual line was remarkably clear.  Still, I wondered if Davis could have attained even greater pinpoint accuracy had he elected to conduct with a baton.  The fugue eventually builds to a great climax with thundering tremolos in the bass drum, and ends luminously on the Picardy third.

Stravinsky’s Divetimento captures the essence of his 1928 neoclassical ballet score, Le basier de la fée.  As a young boy, Stravinsky caught glimpse of Tchaikovsky in the last year of his life at the Mariinsky Theater, and the ballet is a touching tribute to the elder composer, incorporating over a dozen of his works.  Most of these are little-known songs and piano pieces woven so seamlessly into the fabric of the work it can be difficult to distinguish one composer from the other.

The opening Sinfonia begins with a quote from Tchaikovsky’s Berceuse – perhaps the most obvious allusion, but still only veiled, obfuscated through the lens of Stravinsky’s idiomatic style. Davis’ experience as an operatic conductor paid its dividends here as he brought the Hans Christian Andersen tale on which the ballet is based to life even without any dancers on stage. Danses suisses follows attacca, offering some lively contrast.  A duet in the violins by Robert Chen and Baird Dodge was lushly played, as was Stephen Williamson’s clarinet solo.  The orchestration here is heavy on the brass; a few mishaps notwithstanding, the CSO brass were in fine form. 

The Scherzo begins at moderate pace, but quickly speeds up, filled with quicksilver runs played with impressive virtuosity.  The closing Pas de deux opens with cello and clarinet solos, lovingly played by Kenneth Olsen and Stephen Williamson respectively  A variation follows before the coda, which ends the work on a bright note – in sharp contrast to the complete ballet, as concertgoers are kindly spared its tragic epilogue.

The real reason Symphony Center was filled to capacity Thursday night was of course to witness Kissin’s awe-inspiring take on Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no.1.  Few can bring such individual inspiration to this warhorse as Kissin, and he delivered the goods in spades.  After the brass call to arms that opens the work, Kissin played the opening chords against the famous melody in the strings with tremendous power and authority. The vast first movement was a veritable traversal through the whole range of human emotions.  After pizzicato strings, the central movement opens with a flute solo, beautifully played by Mark Sparks of the St. Louis Symphony. Kissin entered with an impeccably judged gentle tone.  The movement is a veritable hybrid with a scherzo, buttressing the work’s symphonic dimensions. The powerhouse finale, based on a Ukrainian dance, kept the audience at the edge of their seat.  Kissin’s quadruple octaves before the coda were played with such velocity his hands were merely a blur.

What followed for the next quarter hour was nothing short of a Kissin lovefest, during which the tumultuous standing ovation was silenced only by no less than three encores. All by Tchaikovsky – much lighter fare than the concerto but superbly played nonetheless.  The Natha-valse, Op.51 no.4 was an apt choice as it was one of the works absorbed into the previously heard Stravinsky.  The Méditation, Op.72 no.5 followed, and finally Noël from The Seasons, the latter especially charming.  Anticipation for Kissin’s solo recital at the same hall in exactly one month is now at a fever pitch.