at Orchestra Hall

January 26 and 28 and February 2

How ironic that as all the media attention suddenly turned to Georg Solti’s announced successor, Daniel Barenboim, Solti should turn in two of the most adventuresome and flawless performances of his entire Chicago tenure.

Solti’s stay was short this season–only two weeks of concerts–largely because the performances were really warm-ups for the orchestra’s east-coast tour last week. Yet because of the enormous weight and importance of the works performed, the length of his stay seems irrelevant.

The two programs consisted entirely of 20th-century works. The first was an all-Bartok program, consisting of his Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta and his only opera, the single-act Bluebeard’s Castle, presented in concert form. The second week brought a major world premiere, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra, and the Shostakovich Symphony no. 8.

It has been fascinating to watch the gradual emergence of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok as the unparalleled genius of 20th-century music. Stravinsky held this position for much of the century, largely because of the reputation he developed early on writing revolutionary ballet scores, but also because he remained a public-relations genius throughout his very long career. Stravinsky lived long enough to become a living legend, and he would have been the first to remind the world of his ongoing importance. Yet almost 20 years after his death, it’s clear that his enormous output varied more in quality than the work of almost any other composer in history.

By contrast Bartok, who was never very well known, understood, or appreciated during his life, is casting a longer and deeper shadow with each passing decade since his death almost 45 years ago. His unparalleled economy of expression awes audiences and musicians more and more. He is one of the elite of the great composers: everything he touched shows magical genius–from his string quartets to his large orchestral works to his instructional piano music for children. All overflow with musical meaning, imagination, and unmistakable originality. He is, by far, the most qualitatively consistent 20th-century composer.

There was a time when Arnold Schoenberg would also have been viewed as an early-20th-century giant–and he still is to some extent. But the 12-tone system he developed seems more and more a historical dead-end. Ironically, most of his enduring works are not 12-tone works, and his disciples Alban Berg and Anton Webern did much more with the system than the master. Today, one is hard-pressed to find a significant die-hard serialist. Even Pierre Boulez, who 30 years ago claimed that serialism was “the only musical direction of the future,” has largely abandoned it.

Thus the pairing of two of Bartok’s most important works–conducted by his former pupil and greatest living interpreter, Georg Solti–is an important event, and it is understandable that Solti would want to take this program on tour, showcasing Bartok, himself, and the CSO.

Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta has an unusual setup, which was specifically spelled out by Bartok. Two string orchestras are on each side of the stage, framing the percussion (timpani, bass drum, side drums, cymbals, xylophone, harp, piano) and the celesta, a small keyboard with a chimelike sound that is probably best known for carrying the theme of the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet. This unconventional instrumentation becomes a springboard for a vast array of glittering and driving rhythms, timbres and textures, and sonorities that have been among the most widely imitated in contemporary music and film scores.

It is undoubtedly Bartok’s most colorful orchestral work and one of his most pure in terms of musical form. Though quite conventional in form, it is based on a compact theme that is introduced by the muted violas, which are then answered by the various string groups in turn. This develops into an elaborate Bach-like fugue that climaxes dynamically and musically–each time the fugue subject reenters the texture, it does so a fifth higher than the last statement. At the climax of the movement, cymbals heighten the tension before the shimmering celesta entrance, then the movement inverts itself and becomes an exact mirror image as it moves back downward. The CSO strings, which are often rightly criticized for their harsh sound, never sounded so mellow and glowing. Solti’s dynamic palette for this movement ran from the softest pianissimo to a grand fortissimo climax, revealing the clarity of its form while emphasizing the evocative nature of the sound combinations.

The work’s second movement is notoriously difficult. But except for a few ragged entrances (especially a consistently late and laid-back piano), its whimsical character and bouncing rhythms seemed like child’s play for Solti and the orchestra. In addition to the movement’s large, sweeping swirls of string sound, its key feature is driving, alternating meters, which were flawlessly spelled out and executed, Solti being the most rhythmically precise Bartok conductor one could hope for.

The work’s slow movement is best known for its use in a number of famous horror films, most recently Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, where it was used in its entirety. It is often called Bartok’s “night music,” because of its somber atmosphere and dreamlike use of rhythm. This gives way to a pulsating finale, a series of Hungarian folk-song variations on the work’s theme that Solti gave the proper feel and spirit.

At the end of the evening, after the complete performance of Bluebeard’s Castle, a woman in the row ahead of me remained in her seat long after the thunderous applause had stopped and the many curtain calls were over. She turned to me with a puzzled look and said, “I don’t get it. When did Bluebeard murder his wife? I must have missed it.” When I told her that Bluebeard never murdered his wife, she was even more confused. “The program says that he murdered his wife,” she insisted. “The program,” I told her, “is mistaken.”

Indeed, if one thinks of the traditional Bluebeard legend made famous by Charles Perrault, her confusion is understandable. In that tale, Bluebeard’s newest wife finds the heads of her predecessors behind a locked door–an omen of her own fate.

Bartok knew that such confusion was possible, and therefore asked librettist Bela Balazs (who had originally set the text for use by Bartok’s contemporary Zoltan Kodaly) to include a spoken prologue. It concludes: “Put away your lives that you may find them. . . . / Enter into Bluebeard’s castle / Soon you’ll see–but you know the story, but you know the moral / are you certain, ladies and gentlemen?”

One of the century’s most powerful atmosphere pieces, Bluebeard’s Castle turns the familiar horror story into an existential allegory in which Bluebeard is Bartok or, indeed, anyone who will not allow prying into the inner depths of his or her soul. The blood and the tears that his new bride finds throughout his castle are his own. Judith, his wife, is the true villain of the piece, because even though she is constantly reaffirming her love of Bluebeard vocally, it is a ploy that helps her satisfy her curiosity and grab yet another key from Bluebeard and open one of the seven locked doors that contain all his secrets. The more she learns, the more she uses what she learns against him, and it is that angst that’s heard on every page of the score. Even Kafka would have been proud of the ending.

Solti knows all of this painfully well, having witnessed much of Bartok’s suffering and having gone through a good deal himself. Thus Solti gave the work the eternal gloom that it demands and masterfully took the audience through the miserable life of Bluebeard as Judith discovers it by opening each of his revealing doors.

The performance was perfection, if that can ever be said to truly exist in the concert hall. The two singers, Hungarian mezzo-soprano Klara Takacs and the Scandinavian bass Aage Haugland, are ideal, vocally and dramatically, for their roles. Takacs’s text painting of the Hungarian libretto was one of the most effective operatic portrayals I have ever heard–it literally sent chills down my spine at the appropriate moments. I have no doubt that the pair mesmerized the New York public last week, despite the fact that the Met is now running its own production, featuring no less a cast than Jessye Norman and Samuel Ramey.

A fascinating footnote to this performance was the inclusion of the prologue in the original Hungarian, spoken by Hungarian-born Chicago actor Miklos Simon, who looked and sounded like Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet, if you can imagine that character screaming in Hungarian.

It was widely publicized that Solti was scheduled to lead four performances of his all-Bartok program but had decided to back out of the Saturday performance because he would be rehearsing for the east-coast tour all day and felt that the work load was too much. All of this was decided last fall, so a letter of apology and explanation was sent out to all those Saturday “B” subscribers who would be affected. The replacement conductor would be Kenneth Jean, the orchestra’s associate conductor, but the program would be the same. On the surface, this seemed quite reasonable. A couple of seasons ago Solti hurt his knee and had to cancel an entire weekend of CSO performances of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. It was an impossible program, yet the then brand-new. assistant conductor, Michael Morgan, made an impressive CSO debut by stepping in at the last moment. He not only held everything together admirably, but managed to stamp the works with some of his own personal vision as well. It looked as though the orchestra had come a long way from the days of the dull readings of former associate conductor Henry Mazer.

Unfortunately for Kenneth Jean, despite his having ample notice to prepare for this program, the scores simply overwhelmed his technical abilities. If ever one needed proof of the enormous complexity of Bartok’s music, the sad sound of the two string orchestras heading off in unrelated directions during Jean’s conducting of Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta certainly would have provided it. Players regularly got lost, entering too early or too late, sometimes following Jean–who also seemed lost much of the time–sometimes closing their eyes and venturing out when it seemed appropriate. The piece was, in a word, a mess, and I’m sure it left many subscribers who were unfamiliar with the work thinking that Bartok is just a lot of modern crap. How sad.

Jean did somewhat better with Bluebeard’s Castle, but most of the piece’s musical shape was left nebulous and undefined. The softer sections of the work were too fast and too loud, and the faster sections were too slow and not loud enough. One wonders if Solti was asleep the day that he chose Jean as associate conductor, or if he just wanted to make sure that everyone would notice the improvement when he returned to the podium.

The next week saw Solti back at the podium, leading a world-premiere performance of a trombone concerto scored for CSO principal Jay Friedman by composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. It is the first of two trombone concerti that the Pulitzer prize-winning composer will write for the CSO; the other, for bass trombonist Charles Vernon, will premiere two seasons from now.

It is difficult to judge a work based on a single hearing, but one can describe first impressions. I found the work fascinating and was immediately drawn in by its interesting use of the trombone as a solo instrument, as well as by the fact that this is not a concerto in the traditional sense. Rather than writing a mere display piece, Zwilich chose to see the brass section and the trombone as two interweaving but equal partners. It was obvious from the high quality of the performance that Solti enjoyed the work, which is not always the case when he does a new score. But then Zwilich’s writing has much more musical content and vitality than many recent CSO premieres.

Solti has wanted to do Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony throughout his career, but for one reason or another never got to it until last summer. He loved the piece so much that he wanted to record it, and an interesting experiment was set up in which Solti would make his first “live” CSO recording–excluding television concerts–during these concerts. In an unusual but highly productive move, Solti took the microphone and explained to the audience exactly what was going on and how vital their cooperation would be in keeping as quiet as possible during the performance. There wasn’t a sound the rest of the evening.

I was not prepared for the eloquent performance that followed, because to my ears, with few exceptions, most of the Shostakovich symphonies are basically Russia’s answer to John Philip Sousa: loud, bombastic, boisterous. If Bartok is the master of 20th-century economy of expression, then Shostakovich is surely the 20th-century master of much LOUD ado about nothing. This work is the second of Shostakovich’s extended symphonic essays on the “Great Patriotic War,” as Russians refer to World War II. Solti’s baton revealed its great subtlety and beauty.

Rather than take every repetition and play the same dynamic level each time–as, for example, Leonard Bernstein did last June when he performed Shostakovich’s Seventh, his other World War II symphony that recreates the mood of the siege of Leningrad–Solti saw the Eighth as a work of deep and bitter longing. Rather than make it simply celebrate the triumph of victory, Solti drew out of it the larger issue of yearning for peace even in the face of victory.