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Liadov, Tchaikovsky, and Prokofiev: Stephen Hough (piano), Sir Mark Elder, CBE (conductor), Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Symphony Center, Chicago, 8.1.2011 (JLZ)

Anatoly Liadov: The Enchanted Lake, op. 62

Anatoly Liadov: Baba-Yaga, op. 56

Piotr Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto no. 1 in B-flat minor, op. 23

Sergei Prokofiev: Symphony no. 5 in B-flat major, op. 100


This recent program of Russian music from the late nineteenth through mid-twentieth centuries showcased the rapport of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with guest conductor Sir Mark Elder, CBE, in works by three different composers. Before opening with two orchestral pieces by Anatoly Liadov, Elder offered brief comments about the music, and then shifted the program order, beginning with The Enchanted Lake. This atmospheric piece demonstrated the cohesive and supple sound of the CSO’s strings, and Elder emphasized the almost pointillist use of woodwinds. The relatively short tone poem Baba-Yaga draws inspiration from the same Russian legend that Mussorgsky used for his lengthier musical portrait. Here the metrical play was precise, and the woodwind colors nicely shaped.

The remainder of the first half was devoted to Piotr Tchaikovsky’s familiar First Piano Concerto, which benefited not only from the masterful playing of the CSO, but from Stephen Hough’s brilliance in the solo part. Elder adjusted the orchestra’s seating, placing the first and second violins opposite each other onstage, with cellos in the center, and basses at the left, causing some changes in the orchestra’s customary sound. The Liadov selections were unaffected, but at the outset some balances in the Tchaikovsky first movement seemed out of place. From the famous opening chords, Hough’s reading was resonant, crisp, and brilliant. As the work progressed, Hough shaped the phrases in a way that made it look easy, benefiting from Elder’s discreet accompaniment. The synergy between conductor and soloist offered freshness, excitement, and dynamism, resulting in a conclusive ending that elicited premature, spontaneous applause from some parts of the audience—testimony to the performance.

The second movement showed the orchestra’s chamber-music-like responsiveness. Here the woodwinds and the cellos were particularly noteworthy. As if to prevent another outburst of applause, Elder started the Finale almost
attacca, with tempos that fit the marking “con fuoco.” In contrast to the middle movement’s subtle character, the Finale was sometimes loud and raucous, a quality usually uncharacteristic of the CSO under Elder. (It may be that the seating changes had some effect here, as well.) Elder brought out the folk-like qualities of the Rondo theme, conveying some affinities that Tchaikovsky shares with Dvořák. Yet it was Hough’s energy that triumphed in the end, and with it an incredibly strong audience response. For the enraptured crowd, Hough offered an encore, Tchaikovsky’s “None but the Lonely Heart.”

A powerful reading of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony encompassed the entire second half. The first movement opened with simplicity, shaped by transparent sonorities from the flutes, cellos, and horns. Elder gave the Adagio a shape that is not always so apparent, and also brought out some of the passages similar to the composer’s ballet
Romeo and Juliet. More than that, Elder’s phrasing, timing, and balance were so successful that the audience again applauded at the end of the first movement.

The second movement was equally strong, with the Scherzo that called to mind, at times, Prokofiev’s ballet
Cinderella. Here the woodwinds showed their real mettle, and while the flutes were sometimes understated, the clarinets offered a rich sound to compensate. Overall Elder was impressive in making Prokofiev’s sometimes far-ranging writing sound remarkably cohesive, with a persuasive slow movement and a Finale that anchored the work, with Chris Martin handling the sometimes challenging trumpet part with great agility. Elder’s tempos were nicely brisk, and he never let the pacing flag through the ringing chords that brought the Symphony to its conclusion.

James L. Zychowicz


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