The virtuosity of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is indisputable, and this week's CSO Sessions episode demonstrated equal chamber music expertise in works by Gounod, Mozart and Ravel. Principals and section members sat alongside each other. What was particularly brilliant about the program was the careful matching of the musicians to the repertoire; each chamber group not only blended with the other performers in the group, but also the character of each work.

CSO musicians play Gounod's Petite symphonie
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

Charles Gounod's Petite symphonie was composed in 1885 at the request of flute virtuoso Paul Taffanel, along with pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns. In her spoken introduction to the performance, CSO 2nd flute Emma Gerstein related that one of the oboists scheduled to perform in this concert had been exposed to the coronavirus and was forced to withdraw. Nonetheless, the remaining players made some seemingly minor adjustments, and the recording proceeded. Principal oboe William Welter held his own. A dramatic camera shot high in the auditorium opened the performance showing the performers in a widely spaced circle on the stage, as if to signal "we're being safe here". Gerstein herself was the star of the performance in Gounod's Romantic but classically influenced four-movement "little symphony". The Andante cantabile was an aria for the flute, played with ethereal tone and lovely phrasing. The Scherzo was Mendelssohnian in its construction and sound, opening with horn fanfares. The central Trio was still energetic, but the playing was more legato, followed by a return of the opening music. The final Allegretto was Gounod at his most perky and charming, as was the performance.

Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson, Robert Chen, Li-Kuo Chang and John Sharp
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

Mozart's Flute Quartet in D major, K285, received what could be identified as an authoritative performance by CSO principals, led by flute Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson. It was startling to hear the boldness of the combined sound from the quartet, especially following the filigreed delicacy of the Gounod work. Höskuldsson's huge, voluptuous and seemingly effortless sound was equal to the combined strings. The ensemble's phrasing was judged and matched to perfection. Mozart's genius was especially present in the second movement Adagio, in which Höskuldsson took the lead in an aria for flute, with mostly string pizzicato accompanying. The phrases were long, but comparable to those a Mozart soprano would expect. The closing Rondo had more complex interplay among the instruments, but it was still the flute's show. This was truly a memorable reading of a Mozart chamber masterpiece.

Stephanie Jeong, So Young Bae, Lawrence Neuman and Kenneth Olsen
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

Not to be outdone by the fine performances preceding them, Stephanie Jeong, associate concertmaster; So Young Bae, Lawrence Neuman and assistant principal cello Kenneth Olsen gave a searing, emotional reading of Maurice Ravel's String Quartet in F major. It was not only virtuosic in its technical performance, but also filled with soaring lyricism and demonstrating the detailed complexity of Ravel's musical textures. Among the fine moments were the matched melodic doubling of the violin and viola in the first movement; Neuman's viola solo in the slow third movement Très lent; a wistful pizzicato melody in the second movement; and the heroic, rhythmically off-kilter finale, Vif et agité. If the Gounod Petite symphonie was a Romantic bonbon, and the Mozart quartet was a virtuoso reading of a Classical masterpiece, this Ravel matched precision, texture and emotion into a superb and exhilarating unity.

This performance was reviewed from the CSO video stream