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Webern, Mahler and Schubert: Christianne Stotijn (mezzo soprano), Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Symphony Center, Chicago 24.4.2009 (JLZ)

Anton Webern: Im Sommerwind
Gustav Mahler: Rückert Lieder
Franz Schubert: Symphony no. 9 in C major, D.944

This concert of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra led by principal conductor Bernard Haitink included a refreshing combination of works, starting with Webern, proceeding to Mahler, and ending with Schubert. This resulted in some fine perspectives on musical style, which took listeners from the hyper-Romanticism of the fin-de-siècle with Webern to the earnest expression of Schubert from earlier in the nineteenth century. The performance of Webern’s 1904 orchestral idyll Im Sommerwind was the CSO’s premiere of this impressive work which its composer completed just before he studied with Arnold Schoenberg. Fully under the influence of Richard Wagner, yet with the sonic palette one would associate with the Schoenberg of Gurrelieder, Webern’s score does not give a hint at the style he would use in the Passacaglia, Op. 1, which he would complete four years later. Instead, this richly orchestrated score evokes the sense of summer warmth in much the same way that Wagner’s “Forest Murmurs” and other orchestral passages in Siegfried give the impression of the forays into nature by the eponymous hero of that opera. Whilst Webern’s score bears a relationship to a poem by his contemporary, Bruno Wille, the music is not a tone poem in the style of Richard Strauss, but a more abstract work. Yet with its use of motives and short themes that develop in the course of the work, the work already suggests the unique voice Webern offered. This highly textured work lends itself well to the nuanced playing of the Chicago Symphony, which delivered a convincing performance under Haitink’s fine leadership. He brought out the details of the score and allowed the sometimes intensive sonorities to sound balanced.

Haitink brought a similar attention to detail in his reading of Mahler’s familiar set of Rückert Lieder, a score which he has performed many times and also recorded. These programs included the young Dutch mezzo soprano Christianne Stotijn, who made her debut with the Chicago Symphony in late 2008, when Haitink conducted Mahler’s Second Symphony. Stotijn was memorable for her interpretation of Urlicht in those performances, and this programming of Mahler’s Rückert Lieder provided an opportunity to hear her in a more extended woprk. Her rich voice fit nicely into the style Mahler uses for the settings of various poems by Friedrich Rückert and it was particularly effective to hear Stotijn deliver the long and sinuous melodic line of “Ich atmet’ einen Linden Duft,” and thus to connect the phrases Mahler composed so carefully. Likewise her performance of “Liebst du um Schönheit” was memorable not just for careful phrasing, but also the sustained approach she took with the final strophe and thus to bring out the meaning of the text poignantly. It was refreshing to hear a somewhat understated approach to “Um Mitternacht,” a song which thematically suggests the music of the anchorites at the opening of the second part of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. The orchestral textures were effective in other songs of the set, since Haitink allowed the symphonic elements to emerge clearly. Some phrases of “Liebst du um Schönheit” reflected passages in the slow movement of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, a work which was composed around the same time. Haitink’s conducting was stylish in delivering these songs effectively and while the orchestra sometimes overbalanced Stotijn, it was still possible to hear the singer.

The final work on the program was Schubert’s Symphony no. 9, a score which Haitink shaped into a memorable performance. From the beginning of the first movement, the attention to detail was evident, not only in the distinct dynamic levels, as indicated in the score, but also in the balance between thematic content and the supporting lines, such as those in the second violins. This allowed the harmonic rhythms to emerge clearly within the structure of the movement. Likewise, Haitink established the processional character of the second movement, a piece that also benefited from the attention to orchestral timbres. Yet the third movement was most impressive for the virtuosic reading it received under Haitink’s baton. The trio of the Scherzo was appropriately distinct in tone and color, which set up the return of the Scherzo at the movement’s conclusion. Such a strong reading of the Scherzo led directly to the Finale, which was as polished and precise as the rest of the Symphony. All in all the performance left a strong impression for its clear and incisive interpretation of this familiar work. The careful attention to detail that Haitink would bring to a score by Mahler or Bruckner was evident in his thoughtful approach to Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, and he brought a freshness and excitement to the work, which captured the imagination of the audience, which responded enthusiastically to Friday evening’s performance.

Jim Zychowicz

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