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Denève, Chicago Symphony master madness, catch magic of Berlioz’ fantastic dreamscape

Submitted by on Dec 7, 2013 – 4:01 pm

Review: Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Stéphane Denève; James Ehnes, violin. Through Dec. 10 at Orchestra Hall. ★★★★★

By Lawrence B. Johnson

It was the nightmare you thought you could only wish for, conductor Stéphane Denève’s hallucinogenic, careening, brilliant turn through Berlioz’ “Symphonie fantastique” with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Dec. 5 at Orchestra Hall. 

In a lifetime of listening to Berlioz’ quasi-autobiographical symphony, a sort of tone poem evoking the drug-induced dream of a rejected lover, I’m quite sure this was the single most electrifying account I’ve experienced. Denève managed to take extreme musical risks – stretching rhythms and bending phrases – without ever losing the musical line, and the CSO delivered a performance at once scintillating in its madness and staggering in its beauty.

But it also must be noted that this thriller came only after another – violinist James Ehnes’ virtuosic, impassioned take on Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1, in its intensity and irony a perfect prelude to Berlioz’ mad symphony.

Denève tapped into the disturbed reveries of Berlioz’ symphonic protagonist by patient degrees, as if setting the stage for the psychodrama to come. The opening movement was slow, expansive, ruminative – and played out by the CSO strings and winds along fragile lines and with delicate colors.

The ensuing “Ball” became a whirlwind, a yearning tempest, a memory as unbalanced as it was dazzling. What was so striking in all this was the paradox of Denève’s precise management of a sound-portrait that teetered toward surrealism. The French maestro expresses his exactitude physically; he is a kinetic conductor.

Though he doesn’t leap about the podium, Denève works his upper body vigorously, thrusting his baton rapier-like, as if to punctuate the music as much as to cue the musicians. And yet no gesture seems excessive. This is a conductor at one with the orchestra. You half expect him to leave the podium and stand among the players — primus inter pares, indeed.

As for punctuation, Denève marked off Berlioz’ demonic, truly crazy finale – built on the medieval Dies irae hymn — as if underscoring its hammering beats with an outsized Sharpie. Here he unleashed the CSO brasses against rolling timpani to torrential effect. It was harrowing and exhilarating at the same time.

But it was Denève’s elegant, poetic treatment of the pastoral scene at the work’s center – and the orchestra’s lambent playing — that perhaps left the most lasting impression. As in the opening movement, Denève gave full expanse to Berlioz’ languid music, and to the liquid exchanges among solo woodwinds supported by velvet strings.

It’s surely just a matter of time before Denève, chief conductor of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra and former music director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, lands a blue-chip post. He is the complete musician, masterful and fully engaged: Witness his meticulous collaboration with James Ehnes in Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1.

Typical of Shostakovich’s music, the First Violin Concerto commingles tenderness with wistfulness, irony with heartbreak. Indeed, the composer, again under official Soviet attack at the time of the concerto’s writing in 1947, feared the work’s honest sentiment might be too overt. He put the unheard score in a drawer until 1955, two years after the death of terror-maestro Joseph Stalin.

Rather like the old concerto grosso, Shostakovich’s four-movement concerto is laid out slow-fast, slow-fast. Ehnes made exquisite work of those introspective chapters and hair-raising flights (at very high speed) of the quick sections.

This is a violinist with all the technical tools and an unerring sensibility. Ehnes’ brought lustrous, singing tone to the melancholy Nocturne that opens the concerto and something bordering on tragedy to the grand Passacaglia that sets up the finale. There was real humor – and real panache – in his sprint through the Scherzo, and something much darker in the closing Burlesque, which he took at a lightning pace.

And all the way, in this marvelously orchestrated and integrated concerto, Denève stayed adroitly in touch with the soloist, eliciting from the CSO a collaboration worthy of a chamber ensemble: mere filaments of sound one moment, the next moment flames.

Ehnes repeats the concerto on Dec. 7; for the program’s final performance, Dec. 10, the violinist gives way to cellist Gabriel Cabezas, who will play Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1.

Denève also will lead the CSO in a Beyond the Score program examining the Symphonie fantastique on Dec. 8 at 3 p.m. at Orchestra Hall.

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