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Mozart and Bruckner: Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim, Music Director and Conductor, Carnegie Hall, New York City. 3.11.2005 (BH)

Mozart: Sinfonia concertante in E-flat Major for Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, Horn, and Orchestra, K. 297B
Bruckner: Symphony No. 5



Alex Klein, Oboe
Larry Combs, Clarinet
David McGill, Bassoon
Dale Clevenger, Horn


Until last night it had been awhile since I’d checked in on the venerable Chicago Symphony Orchestra – my loss.  This Mozart is delightful, with sparkling solos set against a small ensemble, and while I doubt legions are clamoring for Barenboim’s Mozart, the soloists were totally winning.  The news of the day was former CSO principal Alex Klein on oboe, brought back for a star turn after suffering from focal dystonia, a repetitive stress injury, that allows him to perform for limited periods of time. Thankfully we were the happy beneficiaries of some of that time last night.  His colleagues were equally glowing.  Larry Combs’ fluency on clarinet had to be heard to be believed, Dale Clevenger’s horn sounded even better than in the Bruckner that followed, and David McGill’s beautifully full bassoon rounded out a lovely quartet.

The blazing Bruckner Fifth is a formidable piece, and also a bit weird.  The unusual opening, with the delicate pizzicato tread of the double-basses then yielding to a brass outburst, makes way for obsessive rhythmic patterns that define much of the piece.  (Some sections of the orchestra probably overdose on the surfeit of dotted rhythms.)  Barenboim took the entire first movement at quite a clip.  Indeed, this may have been the speediest Fifth I’ve ever heard – not that this is necessarily a bad thing, since some listeners may want a little more urgency in the meditative stretches.  And the grand ending of this movement was about as urgent as one could want.

The gentle Adagio is sculpted from one of Bruckner’s signature gestures, a two-over-three pattern; while the strings are in triplets, the woodwinds sail over them with legato couplets in gliding, graceful contrast.  The effect is ineffably calming, and Barenboim and the Chicago players achieved wondrous, luminous effects.  But the Scherzo may have been the glory of the entire reading: also taken so fast that I worried that articulation might suffer (it didn’t), and crowned by climaxes punched out with furious resonance by the brass.  Bruckner’s writing is sometimes cruel – after a huge fortissimo passage, the entire orchestra will fall silent, leaving a single horn to fend for itself, often in a faraway key.  If the section occasionally wasn’t able to quite negotiate every entrance perfectly, they were still the stars of the evening, as they really must be for this work to make its impact.

The finale, an all-consuming fugue, is the composer at his most relentless, and those who were weary of the rhythmic pattern in the first movement may have been ready to abandon all hope at this point.  Bruckner offers little in the way of traditional development, and much in the way of texture and pattern, and further, gigantic unison passages for the entire orchestra show that this symphony, for all of its seeming naïveté, is in truth very difficult to play.  Barenboim and the orchestra again offered raucous thrills, amid brief glimpses back at the other movements, before the final chorale enters like angels plummeting down after breaking through the ceiling.

In louder sections, the orchestra has a throaty roar that is most pleasing, yet borderline coarse, and different from the refined splendor of some other groups.  This Bruckner was gleaming, yet draped in a gritty haze – not as much of an oxymoron as one might think, and not the only way to play this composer.  But it worked in Barenboim’s hands (and voice, which could sometimes be heard intoning above the mix). 



Bruce Hodges


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