It’s been almost a decade since Esa-Pekka Salonen gave up his Music Director position with the Los Angeles Philharmonic so that he could dedicate more time to composing. Fortunately for his many admirers, Salonen still finds time to periodically guest-conduct some of the great orchestras of the world. One would assume that, at this stage in his career, he can pick and choose exactly those works he is interested in conducting. Hence, his decision to open his second week of subscription performances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn seemed a little bit odd. Why would a conductor famous for his Mahler and 20th-century music interpretations select this particularly overplayed piece? It’s true that the main work on the program, Verklärte Nacht is considered Schoenberg’s most important contribution to music in the vein of Brahms and Wagner. It might be also true that Bartók’s late Neoclassicism would be put into a different light by juxtaposing his Third Piano Concerto with a Brahms piece imbued with the German’s acute sense of form and order. But still, Salonen’s Brahms wasn’t remarkable in any special sense. Not all the entrances were crystal clear on Saturday night. It was a dutiful rendering of a certain quality expected from such a first-class conductor and orchestra pairing. Rhythms were as prescribed. Contrasts between variations of the beautiful theme (that we now know wasn’t Haydn’s) were neither exaggerated nor minimized. Contrapuntal elements were given the proper attention.

Esa-Pekka Salonen © Benjamin Suomela
Esa-Pekka Salonen
© Benjamin Suomela

Finalized in the last days of the composer’s life, Béla Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto is an example of the composer’s burst of creativity during the later years of his American exile. The music has a special poetical character that has attracted great pianists that wouldn’t be otherwise terribly interested neither by Bartók’s folkloric excursions nor by his abrasive, odd rhythms-based Modernism. Dame Mitsuko Uchida has played this opus often, the interpretations always bringing out her outstanding musicality and special charisma. The Adagio religioso, evoking Beethoven’s “Heiliger Dankgesang” from his String Quartet Op.132, was the high point of this rendition with the pianist’s lyricism blending well with the almost transparent orchestral textures. Joining the woodwinds, in this last example of Bartók’s magical “night music”, the piano’s “bird calls” were as ethereal as one could expect. The harmonically rich phrases of the Allegro vivace were played with Mozartian serenity, as suited for a composition meant as a birthday gift for his wife, pianist Ditta Pásztory-Bartók.

When first performed, Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, was considered a clever extension of the popular world of tone poems to chamber music. It was meant to translate into sounds the verses of Richard Dehmel about a night walk of two people in love, the woman pregnant with somebody else’s child. Only later in life, while underlining direct correspondences between his musical phrases and elements of the lovers’ conversation, did Schoenberg claim that Transfigured Night “does not illustrate a particular action or drama, but is limited to depicting Nature and express human feelings”. Regardless, few listeners today of the opulent, post-Romantic harmonies would have Dehmel’s verses in mind. For some, the music is one of the final affirmations of the old values. For others though, any music by this composer can’t be anything than just a first peek into the abyss. Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Chicago Symphony strings offered an amazing rendition of this epitome of a disintegrating old order while a new one is not yet born. The conductor approached the music with a dispassionate, Boulezian, analytical ear, focusing on the coloring of individual textures and managing the ebb and flow with ultimate precision. On this occasion, the young Schoenberg’s music sounded less as a reaction to Richard Strauss’ tone poems and their pyrotechnics, but more of a premonition of the latter’s 1945 lament, Metamorphosen, also featuring only the pure sound of strings. The tension and the intensity of the last few measures were just as heart-wrenching. The not so few listeners that left at the interval missed an outstanding performance of a masterpiece.