at Orchestra Hall

September 28 and October 1

The word “legendary” is thrown around so often in the arts that one hesitates to use it even when it seems deserved.

Yet two of the figures who opened the Chicago Symphony’s 98th season in a special nonsubscription fund-raiser on September 28 are legendary. Pianist Rudolf Serkin, who is now 85 years old, and our own Sir Georg Solti, who is celebrating the beginning of his 20th anniversary season as music director of the CSO and will turn 76 later this month, are both acknowledged legends. The program was the Beethoven Fifth Piano Concerto (Emperor) and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra.

It was strange, and sad in a way, to see Serkin back at Orchestra Hall, where he has not been heard in seven years. Two cancellations since then, both due to illness, left many of us wondering if we’d have a chance to hear Serkin here again. In his prime, Serkin was not only one of the great pianists of the century, he was also known and respected as a musical scholar.

That was many decades ago, however, and the thing that hits you like a ton of bricks when you hear him play today is that you are stepping back into another era, an era whose survivors can be counted on the fingers of a single hand. Of the great romantic pianists, Vladimir Horowitz and Serkin are the only ones still actively concertizing.

I don’t want to be accused of sentimentality, however. I should point out that romantic piano playing (here I mean late-19th-century performance practices applied to the piano, regardless of repertoire–for example, Horowitz playing Mozart with blurred octave doublings and heavy pedal) has never held any great appeal for me. It had its place, but I am not lamenting its loss. I do lament that we seldom see in younger pianists the kind of individuality of sound and interpretation that shines forth so clearly, even now, in a pianist like Serkin.

That being said, I must also say that I found it difficult to embrace Serkin’s performance of the Emperor Concerto, a work that, in the right hands, can flow forth as a brilliant experience of titanic tension, struggle, and finally release. Serkin’s account, unfortunately, sounded as if the struggle were already over. It was a tired, lifeless rendering that gave us only glimpses of the master’s former technique, although much poetry was in evidence in the slower movement and in some of the quieter repeats of the outer fast movements, which were otherwise quite harsh sounding.

In all the Emperor performances I’ve heard, live or on record, I have never heard the piece played as slowly as Serkin took it, 50 minutes by my estimate. The interval between the opening E-flat-major chord and the next downbeat on A-flat major seemed like suspended animation, as Solti and the orchestra waited patiently for Serkin to play his opening cadenza. If taken at proper speed, it should pass by in a few seconds. When Serkin did try to play at some semblance of a faster tempo, as he did in the opening of the third movement finale, it became obvious why he preferred the slow lane: he was missing notes furiously. Hence his tempi became erratic–what he would like to do seemed to conflict with what he is now able to do.

Much credit must go to Solti for his restraint in letting Serkin call all of the shots; Solti’s Beethoven, though sometimes slow, has never even approached the tempi he was conducting for Serkin, which were literally changing almost phrase by phrase. Only an extraordinary conductor could have kept up without chaos ensuing. The huge orchestra, with full strings, was also a concession to the Serkin approach.

The tender loving care that Solti and the CSO took with this performance and the instant standing ovation that accompanied the concerto’s conclusion I take to be an extraordinary and appropriate outpouring of appreciation for Serkin’s long and distinguished career, rather than for this particular performance, which served only as a faint reminder of it.

The second half of the concert featured what is arguably the most important orchestral work of the 20th century, and an old Solti standby, the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra. There is no conductor, alive or dead, who has understood Bartok more clearly than Solti. Solti is able to bring off the most rhythmically complicated sections of this score with an unparalleled clarity, and always with a perfect sense of balancing and ensembling.

The opening of the work, a Hungarian folk tune in the low strings gradually fanning out across the orchestra, was a bit faster and louder than in past performances, and some of the orchestral effects were more pronounced. Although the initial brass entrance was too loud, Solti quickly corrected this; and conversely when the winds began too quietly, he quickly brought them out. The second movement, probably best known as the basis for John Williams’s theme for the sand people in Star Wars, featured more vibrant wind color than in past performances and excellent string effects.

Of the work’s five sections, the third movement seemed the least polished: it didn’t have sufficient intensity, and some small problems with execution stood out. The fourth movement has at other times sounded more energetic. The finale really shone forth, however. It had a wonderful drive and swinging tempo, and crowned the performance with a triumphant blaze of Bartokian glory.

The Bartok was also the centerpiece of the first week of CSO subscription concerts, and it was most interesting to hear it again a few nights later, far more polished than it had been in its initial performance. Yes, we’ve heard the concerto a few times now in a more or less similar interpretation by Solti, but when a work is this interesting and the performance of it this good, you can never hear enough of it.

Preceding the Bartok during that first weekend of subscription concerts were excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and Haydn’s Symphony no. 101 (Clock).

The Tchaikovsky excerpts, which seemed totally out of place from a programming point of view, were basically a dress rehearsal for London/Decca, which was to record them the next week. The tempi were definitely not of the dancing variety; they were brisk, but refreshingly so. This is the advantage of playing ballet music just as music. The orchestral playing had all the appropriate color, though the brasses were at times overpowering, especially in the famous “Swan” theme of act two, which was the opening excerpt. The CSO has been on a Tchaikovsky binge in recent years, but as long as his works are well played and coupled with something as substantial as the Bartok, it seems a small price to pay.

The Clock Symphony was typical of Solti’s approach to Haydn–it had a heavy string sound, and the interpretation emphasized conflict between the instruments. The first movement was brisker than usual, although the “clock” movement and its steady rhythm were uncharacteristically slow (for Haydn, not Solti). The third and fourth movements were marred by some sloppy string ensembling, especially during downward runs and glissandi, which I attribute to overbeating by Solti. The reading in general tended toward the heavy and slow.

This week is the third and final week of Solti’s autumn tenure, the highlight of which will be the world premiere of Gunther Schuller’s Concerto for Flute, written for CSO flute player Walfrid Kujala. This was commissioned by a group of Kujala’s students who wanted to give him a special present for his birthday.