Thursday’s Chicago Symphony program marked the belated debut of Emmanuel Krivine who, at age 69, is hardly a newcomer. He has held music directorships in several major orchestras in his native France, and now finds himself as music director-designate of the Orchestre National de France. Krivine’s idiosyncratic conducting made each work of the crowd-pleasing program of Liszt, Prokofiev and Dvořák sound pleasantly afresh.

Emmanuel Krivine and the Chicago Symphony © Todd Rosenberg Photography
Emmanuel Krivine and the Chicago Symphony
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

Ever the effective curtain-raiser, Liszt’s Les Préludes was given a spirited workout. Starting innocuously with pizzicato strings, the arching themes burgeoned into passionate climaxes. The principal winds were in excellent form, and the harp enhanced Liszt’s striking palette of color. In the final moments, the work was dominated by the percussion, from the martial snare to the crashing cymbals, for a red-blooded close that deftly avoided pomposity.

Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in G minor is the largest of his five works in the genre and makes enormous technical demands on the piano soloist which were handled with aplomb by the remarkable Denis Kozhukhin. A few seasons ago I saw him give a memorable recital of the same composer’s piano sonatas, and he was at least as impressive in the concerto. Matters began with a gently rolling accompaniment in the low registers of the piano, one of the work’s few lyrical moments that was nonetheless unnervingly disjointed. The movement builds to a massive, unrelenting cadenza, one of the largest in the repertoire which Kozhukhin delivered with astonishing power and brilliance. When the orchestra finally rejoined, there was little left to say after such a monstrosity, and the movement ended in barely a whisper.

The brief second movement was arresting in its dazzling display of perpetuum mobile pyrotechnics. Alhough marked Moderato, the third movement offered minimal contrast as here Prokofiev essentially eschews the slow movement altogether. Instead, it was a lumbering, sardonic march with some hair-raising hand-crossed writing in the piano for which Kozhukhin was on point with his excellent keyboard marksmanship. The finale began with a cascade of descending discord. Kozhukhin was earnest in his effort to probe beyond mere spectacle even if Prokofiev didn’t provide much material to work with in that regard. This was especially evident in the folk-like theme that was introduced about midway through the movement, a plaintive moment in a work otherwise not distinguished for its subtlety. The final flourish elicited an enthusiastic reception, bringing the pianist back for an encore in Scarlatti’s Sonata in C sharp minor, K247. In every way this was the opposite of the Prokofiev, eloquent in its stately simplicity.

Denis Kozhukhin and the Chicago Symphony © Todd Rosenberg Photography
Denis Kozhukhin and the Chicago Symphony
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

The evening concluded with Dvořák’s genial Symphony no. 8 in G major, Krivine’s reading more refined than rustic as perhaps tempered by his Gallic sensibilities. His conducting was meticulously detailed-oriented with subtle gestures in his wrists to which the orchestra seemed eager to respond. Beginning in the parallel minor, one was immediately taken by the richness of the cellos. Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson’s structurally important flute solo imitated a bird call, enhancing the symphony’s pastoralism, and the ebullient brass playing was commendable as well. The winds opened the slow movement in an air mystery, later augmented by some fine solo playing from concertmaster Robert Chen. There was a true melancholy in this movement; much like Brahms’ Second Symphony to which this work draws apt comparison, Dvořák knew that peace and tranquility couldn’t be achieved without shades of darkness.

An ineffable yearning was to be had in the lilting third movement, and the trio was especially lovely. The finale was unmistakably heralded by an energetic trumpet fanfare, and the movement proper unfurled in the low strings, recalling the opening movement in which the introductory material is also an integral part of its architecture. Dvořák was certainly adept at writing an exciting conclusion, and here at last Krivine allowed matters to build to a boisterous, folksy abandon.