Two of the Chicago Symphony’s most veteran collaborators graced the stage of Symphony Center Thursday night: Michael Tilson Thomas and Emanuel Ax. The program was clearly designed to play on both their strengths, Tilson Thomas in his beloved Stravinsky and the challenging writing of Sibelius, Ax in the classical elegance of Beethoven.

Emanuel Ax © Lisa Marie Mazzucco
Emanuel Ax
© Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Stravinsky’s rambunctious Scherzo à la russe made for an enjoyable opener, the parallel triads in the brass colorfully bringing to life the pumping bellows of peasant accordions. Even in such a succinct work, Stravinsky manages to include two trios, the first of which had especially lovely touches in the harp from Sarah Bullen. The clarion brass returned to bring this foot-stomping barrelhouse piece to a close, at which point the orchestra rose to their feet and Tilson Thomas spun around to face the audience – a directive he purports came from Stravinsky himself.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major is a work of almost Schubertian understatement. In a move that was utterly revolutionary at the time, the piano opens unaccompanied with a G major chord of spiritual resonance. With the spotlight completely on the soloist, it is a crucial moment as the way the chord is voiced often sets the tone for the remainder of the piece. As I saw him do in a performance of the same concerto a couple years ago, Ax elected to roll the chord. While I felt that easing into it like that missed the mark on the desired effect, it fortunately did little to detract from his wonderfully crystalline and graceful playing in the rest of the opening movement. He approached it in a very classical manner, underplaying the work’s more Romantic potential, although the extended cadenza was delivered with passion and intensity.

The profound and enigmatic slow movement entered the metaphysical realm, with an almost liturgical dialogue between piano and strings. The synergy between Ax and Tilson Thomas paid its dividends with deeply lyrical playing from the former and a sensitive, carefully considered accompaniment from the latter. 

The finale is one of Beethoven’s most boisterous and an unencumbered joviality emanated from both pianist and orchestra alike. After the cadenza, the winds sounded particularly fine in a more lyrical variant of the rondo theme, inexorably leading to an effervescent conclusion. After extended ovations, Ax returned to the keyboard with a limpid account of Schumman’s Des Abends from the Fantasiestücke, Op.12, a fitting way to cap off these concerts which mark the 40th anniversary of his first appearance with this orchestra.

One of the major challenges in playing Sibelius is to resist the temptation to treat him as a Romantic, but as a stark modernist at the dawn of the 20th century. The Second Symphony has firmly been in the CSO’s repertoire since giving the US première on New Year’s Day of 1904, and with MTT’s guidance, they surmounted the difficulties in spades. The bucolic opening – has anyone written a warmer or more genial theme? – is deceptively simple. A listener expecting a Romantic symphony would likely find themselves unfulfilled as it instead meanders into a labyrinth of unexpected directions, and at times forward motion all but freezes in its tracks.

Terse motivic cells form the basic building blocks of the symphony and developmentally expand over time – a winding stepwise theme sounds innocuous at first, but eventually leads to a soaring, earth-shattering climax. Noteworthy playing from the bassoons opened the second movement before giving way to the sprawling strings that paint a barren, forlorn vista. The mercurial scherzo seems to evoke the dancing lights of the aurora borealis, until it is abruptly interrupted by another sorrowful theme, made all the more affecting through Stephen Williamson’s clarinet and John Sharp’s cello.

Without pause, the finale is at long last dramatically announced. Still, Sibelius is in no apparent rush to conclude as the movement unfurls with majesty in its spaciousness. In one striking moment, the high strings were pitted against a pizzicato bass line in a clash of extremities. The martial theme gained momentum to propel it to its sudden and resplendent shift to the D major of the opening, heralding the momentous close of this memorable performance, and a fitting if belated commemoration of the Finn’s sesquicentennial.