After the memorable return of Gennady Rozhdestvensky last month, this week’s Chicago Symphony concerts heralded the return of another long lost guest conductor in Yuri Temirkanov. By coincidence, both Russians had been absent from the CSO’s podium since 1999. Temirkanov played it safe in sticking with a program not noted for its adventurousness, but in what he does best: a Rachmaninov piano concerto with Denis Matsuev and a Brahms symphony.

Denis Matsuev and Yuri Temirkanov © Todd Rosenberg
Denis Matsuev and Yuri Temirkanov
© Todd Rosenberg

Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in D minor is indeed the non plus ultra of the Romantic repertoire, famously difficult and never failing to impress. It begins unassumingly, however, with a theme in the piano likely of Russian monastic origin, to which Temirkanov’s batonless conducting provided a supple, keenly judged accompaniment. The piano writing gets very difficult very quickly, but under Matsuev’s big-boned playing, even the most severe challenges were brushed off with ease and aplomb. Projection was never an issue for him either, as he effortlessly overpowered the orchestra – there was really no contest.

The high point of the first movement is the massive cadenza, which structurally speaking serves as the recapitulation. Matsuev elected for the larger of the two the composer provided; Matsuev's leonine attack unleashing a virtuosity almost beyond comprehension. Rarely will one hear such a torrent of sound emanating from a Steinway. A falling theme in the strings, made all the more poignant by John Bruce Yeh’s playing in the clarinet's upper registers, characterized most of slow movement and led to the piano’s entrance in a heartwrenching cry of desperation. Some levity was to be found in the capricious waltz, brought to life through Matsuev’s immaculate prestidigitation.

The finale dramatically followed attacca, its driving rhythms propelled forward through Matsuev’s boundless strength, never diminishing in intensity. The dazzling double octaves that conclude this magnificent concerto were clearly designed for maximum audience effect, as only a virtuoso pianist as Rachmaninov himself could calculate. Matsuev then treated the enthusiastic crowd to a sprightly reading of a Sibelius Etude by way of an encore. As impressive as Matsuev’s technique was, this was also perhaps what kept it from being a truly memorable performance: absent was the sense of Herculean struggle one associates with this concerto, and instead matters were too controlled, too perfect, too effortless, suggesting a coolness and emotional detachment anathema to the essence of Rachmaninov.

After struggling for decades to write his First Symphony, Brahms’ Second was written in the single summer of 1877, an immensely fruitful period of his life. The pastoral beauty of the piece radiates with the warmth of the idyllic Austrian hamlet of Pörtschach am Wörthersee in which it was written. Gradual harmonic changes in no apparent rush to the finish line give this symphony a relaxed capaciousness. A tender theme opened and led to a gorgeous invocation of the same composer’s Wiegenlied in the cellos. Temirkanov eschewed the long repeat of the exposition and plunged forth into the development, where the sunny skies are momentarily clouded over by the trombones and timpani as Brahms knew such inner peace could only be earned through struggle.

The cellos begin the slow the movement entangled with an ingenious countermelody in the bassoons. In this expansive paragraph, the luster of Daniel Gingrich’s horn proved to be a highlight. Nonetheless, under Temirkanov’s direction there was a certain dispassion that didn’t measure up to the warmth I fondly remember from Muti’s performance a few seasons ago. A rustic intermezzo in the form of a rondo comprises the third movement, with presto interludes in the violins in loose imitation of the opening oboe. The finale, beginning quietly, builds up to an unencumbered exultation of pure jubilation. The finely polished playing of the CSO members was the true standout in this performance. While Temirkanov’s conducting was a worthy effort, it ultimately proved rather pedestrian: bucolic as the piece may be, there’s a rich emotional core that was left largely unexplored.