You may remember that amid all the hype and hoopla over the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Mahler cycle earlier this year something got overlooked. For a variety of reasons, Das Lied von der Erde, undoubtedly one of the composers most critical late symphonic works, got left out in L.A. by Dudamel and company. And while they may always have Caracas, I wanted to make up for lost Mahler and was thrilled to get a chance to do so in Chicago this weekend with the illustrious Chicago Symphony Orchestra. They were incredible under Riccardo Muti recently on their American tour heard in Orange County and this weekend’s program was to have featured another of their legendary regular conductors, Pierre Boulez. As fate would have it, Boulez backed out for health reasons and was replaced by the excellent British conductor Jonathan Nott who led the same concert, which also included Schoenberg’s Piano Concert played by Pierre-Laurent Aimard.
I should start by saying that the playing in and of itself was of the quality that justifies Chicago’s position as the greatest of American orchestras right now. You could listen to those glowing strings and faultless brass alone forever. And hearing them on their home turf is something everyone interested in classical music should do at some point. But they aren’t infallible, and despite all that gorgeous playing Saturday’s show fell just a bit short. This concert featuring the final throws of Romanticism actually started with the Schoenberg concerto written in the composers late Los Angeles years. It’s a dense non-stop 20 minutes of twelve-tone music and its intricacies fly by far too quickly to catch. Aimard gave a powerful, detailed performance that stood in sharp relief against the almost lush playing of the orchestra. There wasn’t the kind of overall crystalline transparency we’ve become accustomed to over the years in L.A. for this kind of material, but who does that these days anymore anyway?
This first half was barely digested before Nott and the orchestra dove into Mahler’s song cycle about life and death. The Chicago players are Mahler masters and the playing from many quarters was at times superb. Mahler’s ersatz Asian elements were given room to breathe. The work was well organized and expertly phrased even if Nott did let the elbows get a little sharp during “Der Abschied”. Some of the entrances there could have been a bit more subdued, but the point got across. The soloists, Michelle DeYoung and tenor Stuart Skelton were well matched for this show. On Saturday, Skelton stayed out in front of the orchestra in some tricky big voices moments, though not consistently. He was quite impressive in the lengthy first song giving off that Heldentenor vibe. I look forward to hearing him sing some of those Wagner roles in the near future. DeYoung was also fully engaged and committed in the performance even if her middle range could get lost in the orchestral sound at times. Her rich turn in “Der Einsame im Herbst” was a highlight of the who night. And despite my misgivings about the sometimes wandering performance of the finale, the tears in her and Skelton’s eyes at the end of the evening were quite real. And that was touching enough.