at Orchestra Hall

September 30

For the opening concerts of its centennial season the Chicago Symphony couldn’t have come up with a more potent and poignant gesture. On the podium, smiling and snarling as usual, was Georg Solti, the durable music director in his farewell season. At the piano, occasionally glancing up at the maestro for cues, was Daniel Barenboim, his designated heir. The past and the future, momentarily linked in a rite of passage.

In anointing Barenboim the CSO’s next leader, the Orchestral Association has settled for a safe bet: a versatile but wimpy version of Solti. (The other finalist was reportedly Claudio Abbado; I would have voted for Michael Tilson Thomas, the brightest American-born conductor since Leonard Bernstein.) Barenboim comes with impeccable credentials. He is, like Solti, an accomplished pianist, a sought-after chamber player, and a renowned conductor of both orchestra and opera. According to some CSO members, he (unlike Solti) is no harsh taskmaster, but rather easygoing to a fault. Is he a box-office draw? Most likely–unless he allows the orchestra to become unruly like the Orchestre de Paris, whose head he was for 15 years. Musically, however, he remains something of an enigma, despite a four-decade career on the concert stage. Surprisingly broad in his musical taste, he can be annoyingly bland when he performs–few of his many recordings wind up on must-own lists, and few people rhapsodize about a Barenboim interpretation, a Barenboim stamp. He is capable of greatness though, as some of his Bruckner and Liszt performances here have proved. The Symphonie fantastique he conducted last season was a model of mannerist delirium, which showed he had thought enough about the old crowd pleaser to give it a new spin. Let’s hope he can forge a strong identity of his own with the CSO–and widen the repertoire.

Bartok wrote his Piano Concerto no. 1 to flaunt his own brilliant keyboard technique. It is a showpiece in the best sense of the term: flashy with a purpose. While challenging the soloist’s fingers with daunting calisthenics, it embarks on an unrelenting exploration of the instrument’s percussive possibilities, on an insistent search for new sonorities and novel rhythms. The rush of sound clusters can overwhelm the listener, as the piano constantly asserts itself as a member of the percussion family that refuses to stoop to old-fashioned lyricism. But ultimately one is drawn into the piano’s breathtaking defiance. In this performance Solti conducted Barenboim (who made his CSO debut 20 years ago with this concerto), and there was no doubt whatsoever that Barenboim is among today’s top virtuosos. Much has been said about Solti’s natural affinity for the music of his fellow Hungarian. I don’t quite buy that argument, but his conducting here was brisk and precise enough for me to think twice.

If any composer is identified with the Solti CSO in the public’s mind, it’s Mahler. One or two of his symphonies usually find their way onto the schedule every season. I’m not sure that Solti feels at home with the music’s fin de siecle sensibility, but he does realize that the expansive scope and multilayered texture of the late 19th-century Austro-German orchestration can show off an ensemble that has stamina and is dominated by strong wind and brass sections. When played well Mahler’s symphonic works can seduce listeners into believing they are in the presence of Great Art, on the threshhold of enlightenment. Not surprisingly, Mahler has been grouped with Thomas Mann as an insightful purveyor of personal psychodrama in epic form. In his 1971 film adaptation of Mann’s Death in Venice, Luchino Visconti turned the adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony into a homoerotic swan song for the protagonist. This act did more to heighten the composer’s appeal as the quintessential romantic than years of tireless campaigning by Bernstein, though Mahler has since acquired an exalted status that’s not quite warranted by his music.

His Symphony no. 5, the bottom half of this program, is rambling, overblown, and jarring. It’s a mess structurally–not in the same league as the equally ambitious but better designed symphonies of Bruckner–yet it is often regarded as a near masterpiece and has become a concert favorite. What pleases the listeners, I suspect, are the evocative, poetic, soulful episodes, which tantalize but do not reveal. Without being ostensibly programmatic–though plenty has been written linking its myriad moods to incidents in Mahler’s life–much of this music is appropriate for a lengthy Masterpiece Theatre melodrama set in Freud’s Vienna. By now, the CSO probably can breeze through any Mahler symphony, and its version of the Fifth was majestic and riveting, though largely unemotional. The performance epitomized the Solti era: sleek, incandescent, calculating, bigger than life.