The final bars of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade consist of the most delicate of pianissimi chords – ethereal threads of sound capped off by two small plucks of the strings. If one had simply heard these final bars alone, it would be difficult to guess all that had transpired just moments before, with some of the most powerful, luscious and Romantic of symphonic orchestral writing in the entire repertoire. And yet, it is this quietest of endings, which completes the full circle of the piece that commences with Scheherazade’s narration, that speaks the most volumes as to the brilliance of the work. To be able to balance such delicacy with utter fortitude and power requires no small degree of virtuosity. It is very often the case that we, the audience, forget – or perhaps, take for granted – the extreme preparation and technique that is undoubtedly required for pieces such as Scheherazade. And so, with this piece and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in D minor – two cornerstones of Russian Romanticism – on the program, we were all duly reminded how fortunate it is to witness such music-making live in performance, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin at the Ravinia Festival.

Leonard Slatkin conducts the CSO © Russel Jenkins
Leonard Slatkin conducts the CSO
© Russel Jenkins

In the natural ambiance of a comfortable summer evening, surrounded by a cacophony of cicadas, the concert immediately proceeded with Rachmaninov’s titanic work, which has garnered the reputation of being one of the most difficult pieces in the repertoire. Denis Matsuev, winner of the 1998 Tchaikovsky Competition, is no stranger to this concerto. He dazzled with his effortless attacks of Rachmaninov’s extraordinarily complex technical writing, filled with a multitude of rapidly ascending and descending triplet figurations and octave-spanning chords, all with sforzandi and fortississimo markings. The varied vantage points of cameras positioned throughout the stage, accompanied by two large screens, offered a unique perspective, especially of his virtuosic handling of the famous chordal “ossia” cadenza, the most commonly performed of the two cadenzas Rachmaninov wrote for the concerto. While digital displays of this size may sometimes prove to be distracting from the ideally immersive auditory experience, in this case, it helped to provide valuable insight as to the necessary speed and technique required for this immense work.

Despite Matsuev’s characteristic display of sheer strength and intensity – without discounting technical bravura, of course – one also finds that his playing contains the essential expressive qualities that convey the pure musicality of the piece. The leggerezza, or lightness, of his touch in the most delicate and dolce of sections, such as in the beautiful interplay between him and William Buchman on bassoon, Daniel Gingrich on French horn, and William Welter on oboe within the first movement, or his flowing, cantabile approach to the haunting, soulful phrases, particularly within the second Intermezzo movement, were rapturous. And all of this momentum built up to the glorious, climactic coda of the third movement – the absolute summit of the monumental piece – which Matsuev, Slatkin and the orchestra handled beautifully with total coordination between soloist and ensemble.

Denis Matsuev and the CSO © Russel Jenkins
Denis Matsuev and the CSO
© Russel Jenkins

Two encores were generously provided: firstly, Sibelius Etude Op.76, no.2, where Matsuev’s nimble, crisp touch was on full display; but it was In the Hall of the Mountain King that illustrated the visceral power, swift speed and dramatic flair that is so distinguishing of Matsuev’s playing.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, a symphonic suite loosely based on the Middle Eastern stories The Arabian Nights, is a piece expertly designed to showcase the virtuosity of the orchestra’s principal players through its distinctive solos. From Robert Chen’s opulent violin, representing the eponymous storyteller, to Stephen Williamson’s sweet clarinet (accomplished with astonishing breath control), or to John Sharp’s arching, singing cello lines, each soloist carried his or her respective solo with complete ease, expression and brilliance. The numerous colors provided in each of the four movements, from the low brass’ majestic grandeur of the sea in the first movement (“The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship”) to the strings’ lush, Romantic sheen in the third movement (“The Young Prince and the Young Princess”), helped to convey the sense of being fully immersed within these wondrous tales and legends. One would have liked Slatkin to provide slightly more spirited, vivacious tempi in the finale's “Festival in Baghdad– The Sea” to deliver more momentum for the climactic coda, but the hushed, delicate chords of the orchestra brought the performance to a satisfying end. Afterwards, on the occasion of his upcoming 75th birthday, Slatkin delivered brief remarks and presented a final encore, Carmen’s Hoedown, arranged by Slatkin’s father, Felix Slatkin. A fusion of the celebrated melodies of Bizet’s opera with the instrumental style of the traditional American barn-dance, the CSO aptly brought the charm and wit of this delightful arrangement to conclude the evening.

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