Kissin brings fresh poetry to Tchaikovsky with Davis, CSO

Sir Andrew Davis
Chicago Classical Review

Due to the vagaries of scheduling, Evgeny Kissin is playing only a single concert this week with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a one-off event led by Sir Andrew Davis Thursday night. The CSO will present a different program Saturday and Tuesday, and Kissin will be back next month for his annual Chicago recital.

With hard-charging accompaniment by Davis and the CSO, the finale was as exciting as one would expect, Kissin blazing through the octaves and runs up the keyboard while keeping a firm rein, skirting excessive speed or volume.

The loud ovations and curtain calls brought Kissin back on stage repeatedly, and the pianist was generous, filling out the short program with three encores, all by Tchaikovsky. He offered a supple and tender account of the Natha-valse, a buoyant Meditation and a lilting rendition of “December (Noël)” from The Seasons.

The result is a winning confection, morphing Tchaikovsky melodies with Stravinsky’s harmonic and rhythmic ingenuity. While there are typically acerbic Stravinsky touches they never undermine the essential affection of this gracious homage.

While Chicago audiences know Davis primarily for his Lyric Opera work, the conductor is often just as inspired in orchestral programs. Such was the case here, with Davis drawing resplendent, multihued playing from the CSO musicians.

Even with the usual platoon of guest woodwinds, the playing was iridescent, jaunty and delightful, with especially fine contributions from clarinetist Stephen Williamson, flutist Mark Sparks (St. Louis Symphony principal), and oboist Elizabeth Koch Tiscione (Atlanta Symphony principal). The ebullient conductor was delighted with the results, shaking hands with the entire semicircle of front desk players and even making his way to the back to thank the basses as well.

Davis was an organ scholar at King’s College before taking up the baton, and his orchestral arrangement of the mighty Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582 opened the evening.

It’s heartening to see that Bach transcriptions are no longer being read out of civilized society, and reappearing as occasional visitors to symphonic concerts. Though scored for large late Romantic forces—including four horns, piano, celesta, harp and percussion with two bass drums—Davis’s transcription is more piquant and restrained than brilliant or audacious in the Stokowski tradition, clarifying Bach’s counterpoint and leading to a majestic fugal coda. Davis’s retooling gives the woodwinds much of the best music and the three flutes were especially fine (Sparks, Jennifer Gunn and Tim Munro, formerly of eighth blackbird).

Read the rest of the review here