Amidst the tumult surrounding Tuesday’s presidential election, one found spiritual respite at Orchestra Hall this week in a weighty program that searched and yearned for transcendence.  All three works confronted death in some way, making for a solemn evening with dignified purpose. Gifted Dutchman Jaap van Zweden, now music director designate of the New York Philharmonic, assumed the podium and brought forth his probing understanding of the repertoire and deep connection with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Jaap van Zweden and Christiane Karg with the CSO © Alex Garcia
Jaap van Zweden and Christiane Karg with the CSO
© Alex Garcia

Mozart’s brief but deceptively simple Masonic Funeral Music made for an effective opener, scored for strings complemented by a modest wind section and a pair of horns. The emphasis of the low winds gave the piece its funereal heft, with some particularly striking writing for contrabassoon given by Miles Manner. The somber mood prevailed through the duration, but not without a certain air of enigma, apposite as per its Freemason origins.

The surging “Prelude and Liebestod” which respectively opens and closes Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde makes for an altogether convincing orchestral work in its own right. The cellos opened in barely a whisper before lurching into to the iconic unresolved dissonances of the so-called Tristan chord. Van Zweden communicated as much in the silence and space between phrases as he did with the luxuriant arsenal of sound, although his tapestry was decidedly modest compared to the Romantic excess in which some conductors indulge. There was ample passion in this performance nonetheless, and especially worthy of mention were the contributions from the principal oboe and English horn, Alex Klein and Scott Hostetler.

Although in the complete opera these excerpts are separated by several hours of drama, here the Prelude seamlessly transitioned into the Liebestod, first presented in the deep, sonorous tones of J Lawrie Bloom’s bass clarinet before he handed it off to clarinetist John Bruce Yeh and successively the fine horn section. Although the orchestra more than compensated for the lack of the vocal line, one couldn’t help but wish that soprano Christiane Karg was a seasoned enough Wagnerian to provide that part in addition to her relatively modest duties in the latter half. Sarah Bullen’s harp added to the sumptuous texture, building up to the long-awaited resolution of the opening dissonance, a glorious moment indeed before the piece reached a quiet resolution in divine transfiguration.

Michael Nagy, Christiane Karg, Jaap van Zweden and the CSO © Alex Garcia
Michael Nagy, Christiane Karg, Jaap van Zweden and the CSO
© Alex Garcia

Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem made up the bulk of the program, and was a shining moment for all parties involved. The burnished tone of the low strings initiated a noble “Selig sind, die da Leid tragen” with the sterling 123-member chorus an imposing force. “Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras” began elegiacally but built to massive climaxes of stately grandeur. Baritone Michael Nagy embodied a powerful vocal presence in the solo passages of “Herr, lehre doch mich”, his German crystal clear and with the keen sense of drama and narrative one would expect from this accomplished Lieder singer.

“Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen” offered a lovely moment of repose, the accompanying pizzicato strings exemplifying the deftly balanced orchestral passagework. Sweet soprano lines from Karg, who along with Nagy was making her CSO debut, elevated “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit”, and she was particularly effective in the gently flowing melismas. The penultimate movement gave Nagy another opportunity to deliver as soloist. It started innocently enough but by the last verse burgeoned into a colossal fugue in what were the most visceral and dramatic moments of the evening. Quite the opposite was to be heard in the concluding “Selig sind die Toten”, music of peaceful resolution. The hall basked in the warm and mellow brass, and recalling the end of the first movement, the heavenward arpeggios of the harp leading to a serene, unencumbered bliss.