Classical review, Lorin Maazel conducts Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Arts and CultureChicago Symphony OrchestraFritz ReinerRichard StraussKrzysztof Penderecki

A guest conductor as supremely confident in his own abilities as Lorin Maazel can program orchestral showpieces long associated with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra without fear of comparisons to the past.

And so Maazel, leading the second of two subscription programs with the CSO Thursday at Symphony Center, bracketed his concert with Respighi's "The Fountains of Rome" and Richard Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra," sumptuous tone poems many listeners link indelibly to Fritz Reiner and the CSO by virtue of their landmark RCA recordings. The Strauss work also was a house specialty of another famed CSO music director, Georg Solti.

Few command as exemplary a conducting technique as Maazel and the results he obtained from our orchestra in the Respighi and Strauss scores, while not as exciting as they could be, were remarkable for their color and refinement of detail. Whereas in the past he might have played Respighi's Roman travelogue for cinematic vulgarity, this time he heightened pictorial effect by applying delicate gradations of tone: Dawn broke at the Valle Giulia in a delicate shimmer of woodwinds.

It was clear our orchestra can play with precise ensemble and a wide dynamic spectrum when such things are explicit in a conductor's beat and gestures.

There is no guesswork when Maazel is in charge. That said, his Strauss was idiosyncratic. Maazel risked a very deliberate tempo in the "On Science" fugue and employed rhetorical touches that felt overly calculated. There was no denying the urgent intensity of sound and feeling he drew from the strings in the section depicting the conflict between sensuality and spirituality. The rumbling low organ pedal was loud enough to jar the moldings from the proscenium, but it was nice to hear the instrument played at orchestra pitch.

The would-be centerpiece of the concert was the local premiere of Symphony No. 4 (Adagio) by Krzysztof Penderecki. Maazel, who had given both the world and U.S. premieres (in 1989 and 1991, respectively) got the CSO to dig into a difficult, unfamiliar score as if it were standard repertory.

The work is in five movements played continuously, with four shorter movements surrounding a long, slow central adagio. This is another in the series of scores that marked the celebrated Polish composer's conversion to a kind of neo-romantic tonal language after his earlier career as a leading avant-gardist. Its musical gestures have much in common with those of his "Paradise Lost," which Lyric Opera premiered here in 1978.

Some of Penderecki's musical ideas are striking — the clashing exchanges between onstage and offstage trumpets, the sardonic fugato for massed violas — but these ideas keep turning back on themselves in ways that do not move the argument forward as a symphony must do. The orchestra churns and broods, building to climaxes whose only apparent aim is to sound impressive. Shostakovich's spirit is strongly evoked by the desolate English horn solo of the central movement. But Shostakovich said it all better, and that was 60 years ago.

The program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday; phone 312-294-3000.

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