Following her memorable Chicago Symphony debut in 2011, each of Susanna Mälkki’s successive appearances have been major events as she has consistently proven herself to be a force to be reckoned with on the podium. While this week’s program was a bit less adventurous than her previous outings, it still offered enormous variety and contrast in orchestral effects to which she applied her signature unwavering attention to detail and nuance.

Susanna Mälkki © Simon Fowler
Susanna Mälkki
© Simon Fowler

Gigues, the opening selection from Debussy’s triptych of orchestral Images, is obliquely based on the English folksong “The Keel Row”. Obfuscated through an impressionistic haze, it invokes a similarly atmospheric portrayal as his more famous depictions of Spain. The folksong was beautifully presented in the oboe d’amore by Michael Henoch, eventually taking on a myriad of guises throughout the orchestra. Mälkki had an impressive command of the breadth of Debussy’s impressionist watercolors.

Gil Shaham was an ideal choice for soloist in Bartók’s Violin Concerto no. 2 with his long history of performing the piece here, having made a benchmark recording with this orchestra and Pierre Boulez. The concerto is in many ways Bartók’s farewell to his native Hungary, the violin being the country’s national instrument, and in its appropriation of the csárdás and other folk themes. It begins with folksy strumming in the harp and strings before the violin makes its jaunty entrance. This is also one of Bartók’s most forward-looking works as twelve-tone themes can be found in the two outer movements. I was especially taken by the joy and vitality Shaham brought to his performance – he was clearly enjoying himself in the ferocious cadenza, replete with quarter-tones and dazzling effects pushing the violin to its limits.

The second movement is in variations – unusual for Bartók – and provides moments of surprising beauty, almost like a nocturne. David Herbert’s contributions on the timpani were commendable, his carefully judged execution creating endless variety of tone and timbre. The finale returns to the rambunctiousness of the opening and the energy between Shaham and Mälkki was electric in this choice pairing. The dance rhythms and barbaric volleys of repeated notes drew the work to a spectacular conclusion.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade can sound trite and clichéd under lesser hands, but with Mälkki at the reins matters were remarkably fresh and engaging. The effect of the sea’s rocking waves in the first movement was visceral, and much of its development came not from thematic metamorphosis, but from the brilliance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s highly individualized and nuanced orchestration. The full force of the large orchestra was rallied for the climaxes, but at other times things were reduced to chamber-like proportions, with standout solos from clarinetist Stephen Williamson and cellist John Sharp. Robert Chen expertly handled the substantial demands of the solo violin part. This is Scheherazade’s theme, telling these exotic tales in the manner of a minstrel, Chen’s playing weaving a rich, silken tapestry.

Bassoonist Keith Buncke had a shining moment in the second movement in a theme invoking a pentatonic orientalism. Mälkki’s graceful, ballerina-like movements gave a delicate clarity. Sweet playing in the strings opened the lovesong third movement, with some technically impressive runs from Stephen Williamson, later echoed in the flutes. A snare drum suggested a military band, and inevitably matters coalesced into a passionate climax to magical effect.

The bleating of the winds gave a dramatic urgency to the final in this animated portrayal of Baghdad, a thriving metropolis. Scheherazade herself was given the final word, however, through Chen’s violin as he hypnotically kept the audience hanging on to every last one of his notes in the violin’s highest register. This was indeed much more than an everyday Scheherazade.