CSO Plays Beethoven 7 Review-Familiar, Never Ordinary

Manfred Honeck

The latest program from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra relied on staples of the symphonic repertoire, but when the centerpiece staple is Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, it cannot be described as ordinary.

Led by Pittsburgh Symphony chief, the Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck, Thursday night’s program at Symphony Center was primarily a showcase for arguably Beethoven’s masterpiece, but it began with another, shorter symphony, the 93rd Symphony of Haydn, the first of that composer’s so-called “London Symphonies.” It’s hard to compare the magnitude of a Haydn symphony with that of his pupil Beethoven’s, but listening to the D major symphony of Haydn we can observe how he (as well as his contemporary Mozart) influenced the later composer.

Haydn’s work, though filled with Classical lightness, features several abrupt changes of mood that Beethoven used in his own later works, including the A Major Seventh.

Though it is a reach to say that the two works are connected, Honeck’s approach to the Haydn symphony established a style from the orchestra that produced an uplifting sound that was never light but kept the overall feeling spry. In a rare effect, the woodwinds and brass blended into the background, relegated to a supporting role that kept the legato string play at the forefront.

If the Haydn work was lively, the piece that followed, Richard Strauss’s Don Juan, was downright jaunty. One of the earliest tone poems of the youthful composer, Don Juan is one of Strauss’s many heroic musical depictions that reflect its composer’s own heroic ambitions. It’s a fun piece, and it’s fun to watch the parts of the 100-piece orchestra perform like the many parts of an intricate machine. The CSO’s playing was never ostentatious or vulgar (except maybe in parts where the writing was a bit vulgar;) the sound of the horns in particular was resplendent, and assistant principal oboe Michael Henoch (several of the orchestra’s principals were conspicuously absent) made the most of his solo with a particularly sensitive interpretation.

Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, which premiered in 1813, stands out even among Beethoven’s titanic works. Like the Eroica, its first movement is a masterpiece of triumphalism, its second movement may surpass almost any other piece of music, yet it manages to hold interest even if its final two movements do not quite reach the peaks of those immediately preceding them. Honeck smoothed out the musical line in the symphony’s opening movement, and the orchestra sustained the lively pace of the previous works. The performance “seemed” right, that is, the various colors sustained in the forty minutes that make up the four movements gave sufficient weight and lightness when called for.

Again, the performance was dominated by the strings, except during solos. One notable contribution came from the always fine principal timpanist, David Herbert, whose contributions at times were low-key but always palpable. The ensemble’s finest moment of the evening came in the final movement of the Beethoven symphony, in which Honeck’s baton could have been replaced by a racing flag; the furious finish was certainly fast, but never abrupt and done with enthusiasm palpable in the players.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra Plays Beethoven 7, Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan, 8:00PM Saturday, 7:30 PM Tuesday.

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