Chicago Sun-Times and suntimes.com, Friday November 2, 2012 3:40PM CDT
CSO, Semyon Bychkov still settling in for Mahler Third
Repeats Saturday at 8 p.m.
BY ANDREW PATNER
Conductor Semyon Bychkov
Chicago is a Mahler-besotted city. Since the late ’60s, every Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director and lead conductor from Jean Martinon to Bernard Haitink -- plus James Levine in the summer months -- has brought bounteous helpings of the Austrian composer’s symphonies to a seemingly insatiable audience.
Along the way, the CSO, whose historic strengths made it a natural for these large-orchestra, virtuosic yet meditative works, quickly became one of the world’s finest Mahler ensembles, with multiple award-winning recordings and performances at home and on tour.
The CSO even launched its first house CD label, CSO Resound, with a release drawn from the live performances of the mammoth, 100-minute 1895-99 Third Symphony led by then principal conductor Bernard Haitink here exactly six years ago.
The commitment of orchestra and audience is great here, and the bar is high. So it shouldn’t be surprising that a performance of the Third, conducted Thursday night at Symphony Center by the often enviable guest Semyon Bychkov, while strong and at times deeply involving, did not reach the levels associated with such predecessors as Levine, Solti and Haitink.
The Russian-Jewish exile Bychkov, who turns 60 this month, is a wholly serious musician. He’s not concerned with show, prestige or even his resume; he’s one of the few major conductors not now a music director of an orchestra or opera house.
His ideas, focus and technical abilities were clear in the 35-minute “Introduction” that Mahler wrote for the work. The score marking of this first third of the piece can translate as “with force and decision,” and this was Bychkov’s way. Everything was underlined and connected, but never overblown or amplified. From the double team of horns to the illustrative percussion ensemble, to the supple strings, a world — whether of nature or man’s examination of himself hardly matters — was presented at every moment.
But as the five movements of Part 2 unfolded, the performance lost focus, intensity and often a successful execution. The problems of the principal horn are, alas, by now well-known. That he takes his colleagues with him as they must vamp and play to cover his difficulties has become saddening.
Bychkov seemed to lose consistent sense of the piece, particularly in his 25-minute take on the last movement, which must be delicate yet commanding, and here seemed airy and not insistent.
Principal trumpet Christopher Martin had some bobbles in his offstage posthorn solo, but some of this was the hazard of handling a valveless instrument. Trombone Jay Friedman was solid in his solos; flute Mathieu Dufour and oboe Eugene Izotov were magical in their dialogues. Slovenian-Argentinean mezzo Bernarda Fink was back as soloist after serving in the vocal quartet of Haitink’s glorious offering of Beethoven’s “Missa solemnis” last week. A highly intelligent singer, she gave Nietzsche’s “O Man, give heed!” with insight and directness.
The women of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, prepared by Duain Wolfe, and the Glen Ellyn-based Anima Young Singers were also not wholly there in the fifth movement “Heavenly Joy” interlude.
Some things will settle in the remaining performances. With limited rehearsal time for such a lengthy piece, Thursday could have been a last run-through rather than what everyone involved surely wanted it to be.