Thursday night’s concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra presented a solidly Classical (Classical Era, that is) program to the Symphony Center audience, one that introduced the works of two novel, lesser known Classical composers to the CSO’s repertoire alongside the familiar, but always welcome, works of Haydn and Beethoven. The concert was led by French-Canadian conductor Bernard Labadie, a specialist in the Classical repertoire, and his introduction of the two unfamiliar composers was almost certainly untrod ground to many CSO patrons, even ardent classical (the genre, not the era) fans.
The two symphonies premiered on Thursday night, the Symphony in C Minor, Op. 12, No.4 by Henri-Joseph Rigel, a German-born composer who spent his adult life in France, and Symphony in E Minor, VB 141, by Joseph Martin Kraus, an exact contemporary of Mozart’s (they were born the same year,) also German-born but who spent much of his time in Sweden, are two works worth considering together. The symphonies were not quite identical, but their structure and the similarities of the idiom in which they were written are such that they play very similarly. Both works are three movement works, clock in at just under twenty minutes, and are written in minor keys.
Despite legitimate attempts at seriousness in both pieces, the two symphonies both come off as fairly shallow, emblematic of what was being composed by talented but decidedly lesser talented artists at the time of Haydn and Mozart. Both pieces were certainly entertaining, and Labadie’s familiarity and the CSO’s facility with them was evident, but after this run, very little will be lost if these works stay on the shelf.
In between these two novelties came the Piano Concerto in D Major by Haydn, Haydn’s only composition in the genre that has remained in the standard repertoire, though it has not been a favorite. Soloist Marc-Andre Hamelin, another French-Canadian, gave a particularly sensitive interpretation, despite a cadenza in the first movement that for a brief moment sounded like Jerry Lee Lewis had made a contribution. His playing of the beautiful adagio movement was notable for its contemplativeness, a great deployment of near-silence by Hamelin that enraptured both the audience and the orchestra players alike, before they both moved on to the high-spirited finale which prompted unrestrained enthusiasm from the Orchestra Hall audience, who applauded until Hamelin supplied an encore, the final movement of Haydn’s A Minor Piano Sonata, which Hamelin introduced with a wry single word of “Haydn.” to the audience before playing the Presto movement at a virtuoso pace closer to prestissimo.
The orchestral showpiece of the evening came with the First Symphony of Haydn’s most famed pupil, Beethoven, premiered in 1800 (which technically means the concert was exclusively made up of 18th Century pieces) a work that announced that the promising 30 year old was now trying his hand at the symphony, though no one could have foreseen what he accomplish in the genre from this pieces. With the benefit of hindsight, however, the first movement in particular is unmistakably Beethoven, a powerful and passionate statement. In addition, the second movement contains airy melodies from the strings evocative of the slow second movement of the Pastoral, and a brief burst from the clarinets even called to mind a similar effect in the scherzo of the Ninth. As so often the case in much of Beethoven’s work, the shadow of both Haydn and especially Mozart, the latter of whom Beethoven did his best to parrot in the final movement, hangs over the composition.
Any Beethoven symphony is certainly familiar territory for the CSO, though Labadie’s guidance was evident in the quick tempos which are probably closer to Beethoven’s original markings than in a contemporary “big band,” which the orchestra did not resemble at any point during the concert, with most of the brass and percussion absent, and the strings pared down for a more “period” effect, done with elegant results. It’s remarkable to consider that after this concert, the orchestra is going to embark on a long period of playing Strauss, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Britten, works are about as far from the Classical repertoire as possible. The versatility of musicians of this caliber should not surprise anyone, but it is something that should not be taken for granted.