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Osmo Vänskä, subbing for Haitink, leads CSO in radiant Brahms symphony, Double Concerto

Submitted by on Oct 19, 2012 – 1:57 pm

Review: Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä. Renaud Capuçon, violin; Gautier Capuçon, cello. At Orchestra Hall through Oct. 20. ★★★★★

By Lawrence B. Johnson

Orchestra Hall was packed for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s all-Brahms concert Thursday night, and one had to believe much of that audience had signed up because the scheduled conductor was favorite guest maestro Bernard Haitink. But when Haitink became indisposed, Minnesota Orchestra music director Osmo Vänskä stepped in – and, with two brilliant soloists and the CSO at peak form, delivered an evening of Brahms to remember.

In Vänskä’s third appearance with the CSO dating back to his debut in 2000, the Finnish-born conductor was making his first real foray here outside the Scandinavian realm of Nielsen and Sibelius. His Brahms – Symphony No. 1 in C minor and the Double Concerto with violinist Renaud Capuçon and cellist Gautier Capuçon – afforded an impressive display of cosmopolitan musicianship.

Vänskä’s collaboration with the brothers Capuçon was chamber music writ large. More than that, this intimate, radiant performance cast a distinctive light on Brahms through the commingling of Finnish and French musical sensibilities. The Capuçon brothers, who must have played the Brahms Double Concerto times without number, grew up playing chamber music together and each is a virtuoso in his own right. Their attention to lyrical nuance and the contrast between Renaud’s airy violin sound and the burnished resonance of Gautier’s cello made for dialogue of the most inviting and illuminating kind.

But the interplay did not end there. It wasn’t mere backdrop that Vänskä elicited from the CSO, but rather a third conversational voice as finely inflected as the other two. While the conductor drew power aplenty when needed – notably in the energetic dance that crowns the concerto – it was proportional force, never heavy-headed but effectively scaled to the gracefulness of the performance as a whole. In that sense, Vänskä brought Haitink to mind.

Similarly, Vänskä’s spacious, elegant turn through Brahms’ First Symphony was exemplary in its structural clarity, textural finesse and dramatic proportions.

Vänskä shaped the opening movement’s grand architecture into a single arch, gleaming in the CSO’s restrained but precise and luminous ensemble playing. The strings’ warm, pliant sound found its match in expressive woodwind solos and the brass choir’s sunlit contribution.

But the slow movement was the night’s highlight. Here, Vänskä put down his baton to conduct with his hands, shaping an almost verbal orchestra performance phrase by phrase, not unlike a choir master. Indeed, this profound music harkened back to one of Brahms’ earliest masterpieces, the “German Requiem,” with its spiritual aura of introspection.

The symphony’s brief, buoyant scherzo Vänskä treated as a prelude to the broadly drawn finale, making only a minimal break between the two movements. And what a glorious landscape he fashioned in that final tableau, from the woodwinds’ quiescent opening through the soaring song at the movement’s center to an ecstatic peroration.

This was Brahms on his own terms, not the composer viewed indirectly as the successor to Beethoven trying to be that other composer. It was deeply satisfying, indeed exhilarating in Vänskä’s restrained and knowing perspective. He is a conductor the CSO would do well to bring back on a regular basis.

Vänskä’s appearance with the CSO became possible only because the Minnesota Orchestra is in the midst of a work stoppage over a contract dispute. He had been scheduled to conduct in Minneapolis this weekend.  Musicians of the Chicago Symphony handed out fliers before the Thursday concert expressing  support for their colleagues in Minnesota.

A CSO spokesperson said Bernard Haitink will keep his next engagement here, conducting performances of Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” Oct. 25-27.

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Photo captions and credits: Home page and top: Conductor Osmo Vänskä. Violinist Renaud Capuçon (Photo by Simon Fowler/Virgin Classics) Cellist Gautier Capuçon (Photo courtesy CAMI)



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