Formerly one of the Chicago Symphony’s frequent guest conductors, Neeme Järvi’s return on Thursday night broke an absence from the CSO podium of some eight years. He brought with him an engaging program of Russian and Scandinavian repertoire on which he has built much of his reputation, and his rapport with the musicians was evident from the start.

Neeme Järvi © Simon van Boxtel
Neeme Järvi
© Simon van Boxtel

Ever keen to explore beyond the confines of the standard literature, Järvi opened with a bona fide rarity in Glazunov’s Concert Waltz no. 1, a work which hasn’t appeared on a CSO program in over half a century. The infectious waltz theme first appeared in the strings and winds with some especially charming playing from the principal clarinet. What the work lacked in profundity it made up for in appeal, and the CSO musicians clearly enjoyed themselves.

More Russian music was to be had in Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in D major with soloist Vadim Gluzman – whose previous CSO appearance, incidentally, was under the baton of Järvi’s son, Paavo. Gluzman didn’t have far to travel for this weekend’s concerts as he makes his home in Chicago’s north suburbs where he founded the acclaimed North Shore Chamber Music Festival. Unlike much of Prokofiev’s other works stemming from the same period, the concerto eschews the composer’s reputation of an enfant terrible and instead opts for the restrained and introspection.

After an opening vamp in the orchestra, the arching lyricism of the solo violin took over, Gluzman fully capturing the score’s marking of sognando (“dreamily”), although in due course some more angular themes provided contrast. The quicksilver middle movement was almost Mendelssohnian, augmented by a colorful percussion section that included snare and tambourine. Some noteworthy playing from the bassoon department was heard in a finale that was largely dominated by the lyricism of the work’s opening, amply flowing from Gluzman’s Stradivarius. Near the end, some trills in the violin evoked a pastoral idyll of sorts, leading to – unusual for Prokofiev – a tranquil conclusion. The warm reception brought Gluzman back for the concluding “Les furies” movement from Ysaÿe’s Violin Sonata no. 2 in a fiery performance replete with otherworldly invocations of the Dies irae.

The latter half was devoted to Sibelius, beginning with the rousing Karelia Suite. String tremolos opened the Intermezzo, the horns joining shortly thereafter. Their warmth proved to be especially lovely, and the trumpets added an air of joviality. The heart of the three movement suite is the central Ballade, beginning somberly in the winds. Long string melodies were interjected by oboist Alex Klein, and the highlight came in Scott Hostetler’s extended solo passage on the English horn, suggesting the vocal line from the suite’s source material. Following the performance, the avuncular Järvi called Hostetler up to the podium to be recognized. The blazing Alla marcia rounded off the suite with brass as festive as the garlands that drape the stage this time of year.

Whether purely coincidental or the product of very clever long-range planning, Thursday was not only Sibelius’ birthday but also the anniversary of the 1915 world première of the Fifth Symphony that concluded the program (albeit in the familiar 1919 revision). Järvi favored the work’s Romantic qualities over its modernist innovations, but in a piece so lushly scored it nonetheless proved to be a rewarding approach. It began with labyrinthine lines in the winds, the austerity of the opening building to the shimmering spectacle of the aurora borealis. In an ingenious handling of musical architecture, the scherzo is seamlessly subsumed in the opening movement, and the intensity soared to great heights in its conclusion.

A gentle passage in the flutes characterized the opening of the second movement, its ingratiating melody betraying the rhythmic gesture on which the ensuing variations were based. The finale built up inexorably to the famous and glorious motif in the horns, purportedly inspired by the composer witnessing a flock a swans taking flight, and it was clear that this was the destination the previously heard intricacies could only anticipate. String passages evoking the fantastical were gossamer in texture, although the movement wasn’t an entirely glorious affair as the horn motif underwent transformations into darkness. Nonetheless, this is a work that ends in the light and matters were soon resolved to set the stage for the enigmatically spaced chords that conclude, and Järvi teased meaning out of the silence between to make each of the six final chords well worth the wait.

****1