Mark Elder, CSO offer rewarding Central European sojourn

Jeremy Denk
Chicago Tribune

What I wrote about Mark Elder in 2009 still holds true in 2016: Someone really should make the British conductor an honorary Czech. I noted as much during the Dvorak Festival he devised and directed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra that year, a June festival event he led with idiomatic authority and had the CSO playing Dvorak better than just about any orchestra this side of the Moldau.

This time around with the CSO, Elder is expanding his Central European perspective to include two works by Dvorak's great countryman, Leos Janacek, on the subscription program he is presenting this weekend and next week for his second and final week's residency at Symphony Center. Welcome bonuses are a bit of Dvorak and a side trip to neighboring Hungary, in the form of a Bela Bartok concerto performed in honor of the orchestra's 125th anniversary.

Elder's countryman, conductor Charles Mackerras, had that instinctive feel for the Janacek idiom, and so does Elder. One heard it in his detailed and assured readings of a suite from Janacek's opera "The Cunning Little Vixen" and symphonic rhapsody "Taras Bulba" on Thursday night. The "Vixen" suite was essentially the standard version prepared by Czech conductor Vaclav Talich, though later adapted by Mackerras to preserve Janacek's original orchestration and to include some music from the opera not present in the Talich.

The CSO gave Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 2 (1931) its belated U.S. premiere in 1939, with one of the composer's young pupils, Storm Bull, as soloist, and Frederick Stock conducting. Two years later, Bartok, who was a brilliant pianist, played the work here, again with Stock and the CSO. This angular and formidable concerto requires a pianist with nerves and fingers of steel — but also a flair for the fantastic.

Jeremy Denk met all the requirements triumphantly. I have never heard a thoughtless or uninvolved performance from this remarkably individual American pianist, and the fearless aplomb with which he stormed through Bartok's knucklebuster was little short of sensational. Few pianists file their rhythmic attacks to a more incisive point than Denk. The pianist's torrents of notes swept across the orchestral soundstage like a juggernaut, but always with a tonal solidity that eschewed clatter. The spiky nervosity that propelled the outer movements enclosed a central movement whose marked contrasts of prayerful calm and driven fury pianist, conductor and orchestra sustained most beautifully. Quite a thrill ride, and its effect on the audience was immediate.

Dvorak's playful "Scherzo Capriccioso" opened the concert in a reading alive with dusky woodwind colorations, stylishly played right down to the subtle portamento slides in the violins.

Someday soon the CSO really should invite Elder to present an entire festival of Janacek's music. Meanwhile, the conductor will preside over a Beyond the Score examination of Janacek's life and music, as devised by series creative director Gerard McBurney, on Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center. The musical portion will include the "Cunning Little Vixen" Suite and "Taras Bulba." 

Read the rest of the review here