Saturday, October 07, 2006

CONCERT REVIEW: CSO guests bear marks of East-bloc upbringing

CSO guests bear marks of East-bloc upbringing

By Andrew Patner
Chicago Sun-Times, October 7, 2006

Even the most fervent believer in "art for art's sake" would have a hard time in separating biography and politics from this week's Chicago Symphony Orchestra subscription concerts.

A fabulous baritone born and reared in the former East Germany is making his belated CSO debut in a Mahler song cycle that underscores the horrors and follies of war, and a still-young American-based conductor born and reared in the occupied nation of Estonia makes a return visit to Orchestra Hall to lead a performance of Shostakovich's 10th Symphony, written to mark the death of Stalin in 1953.

Like the great bass Rene Pape, Goerne gained from the preservation of traditional teaching methods and discipline in the former East Germany that was an odd byproduct of the Communist era -- both a government policy and an opportunity for artists to separate themselves from politics. At 39, he has built a career with greatest care in lieder singing, orchestral work and, in more recent years, opera. He chose, and was chosen by, the very best pianists and conductors for his projects. He simultaneously recognizes that song performance is by nature theatrical and knows how not to let theatrics stand in the way of the composer's intentions.

With a heavy cycle of 11 of Mahler's 15 songs to German folk lyrics collected under the title "Das Knaben Wunderhorn" ("The Youth's Magic Horn"), and one more, "Trost im Unglueck" ("Comfort in Misfortune"), offered as an encore, Goerne was by seamless turns storyteller, confidant, whisperer, defiant prisoner, coquettish girl, doomed child, naive saint, vigilant sentry. For 50 minutes, he held the audience spellbound with a voice that is notable for authority and deep insight rather than sheer beauty free of context.

Music director of the other CSO, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Jarvi as accompanist was much more at home than in his previous Chicago visits but still was assisting with the orchestra more than partnering.

This same hesitancy kept Jarvi from being more authoritative in the Shostakovich E Minor Symphony. Like his fellow conductor and father, Neeme, he has a clear baton technique and no external agendas to impose. But this is a symphony where Shostakovich's own voice needs to be kept from pomposity and ponderousness, particularly in the finale; the work is either not fully in Jarvi's bones or he is not yet able to put his full stamp on a performance of it. The orchestra played superbly, though, especially the solo and combined winds and horns.

Andrew Patner is critic-at-large for WFMT-FM (98.7).

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