Vocal with cheers, that is, for music director laureate Paavo Järvi, returning to the CSO for the first time since stepping down as music director in May, 2011.
It was a heartfelt and well-deserved tribute, coming at the conclusion of a finely crafted, sensitively nuanced performance of Brahms’ Second Symphony.
Brahms shared the program with the Overture to “Genoveva” by Robert Schumann – not heard at the CSO since 1977 and a fine curtain-raiser -- and Witold Lutoslawski’s 1987 Piano Concerto in a brilliant collaboration with guest artist Stewart Goodyear.
The Concerto begins with an almost stealth-like evocation of Ravel (“Sunrise” from “Daphnis and Chloe”) and bird-like twitters in the woodwinds. The effect is of a flower garden, with bees humming and the piano engaging the orchestra in a series of chance encounters before fluttering off on its own. (Portions of the Concerto are written using chance techniques, though they are strictly demarcated by the composer and controlled by the conductor.) It unfolds in four distinct movements, performed without a break, with a solo recitative (in place of a cadenza) introducing the third (slow) movement.
There is abundant beauty in the 25-minute work, also power, wit and light-heartedness. The second movement is a perpetual motion “chase” (Lutoslawski’s own word) and the final movement recalls the baroque chaconne, a variations form utilizing a repeated motif, emerging here -- again, almost stealth-like -- deep in the double basses as the piano softly concludes the slow movement.
The effect of give and take was preeminent throughout, sometimes with great good humor -- witness a moment in the slow movement where the horns began a jolly little tune only to be squelched by a sudden fortissimo chord by the piano.
Goodyear was the master of it all (performing on the CSO's Steinway & Sons Model D concert grand piano which he himself helped the orchestra select when the purchase was made several years ago). His articulation was crystal clear, and he gave himself to the work’s rhapsodic moments with unfettered abandon. He was all over the keys in the finale, which built to a “perilous” high at the end, before gleefully tumbling down to a rock-solid conclusion.
Järvi, who is embarking on a cycle of the Brahms symphonies with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen (which he heads, along with the Orchestre de Paris and come 2015, Tokyo’s NHK Symphony), made a virtual love letter of the Brahms Second. There was steadfast love, tender love and all-out, head-over-heels love in this performance, beginning with a smooth, gentle exposition of the opening bars of the first movement, taken neither too fast nor too slow, and exquisitely shaped. Similarly, the rich, vibrant subordinate theme by the violas and cellos was beautifully tapered. Dynamic highs and lows (especially the lows) provided the meticulous, sculpted shading that has come to be part of the “CSO sound” under Järvi. Compliments go to principal hornist Elizabeth Freimuth for her gorgeous solos here, and throughout the Symphony.
The Adagio second movement was warm and enveloping, but with great delicacy and refinement, and the lullaby-like Allegretto pulsed with feeling, enhanced by principal oboist Dwight Parry’s sweetly couched solos. Järvi ratcheted things up in the finale, making a virtual shout-out of the sudden forte in the opening bars. He kept the fervor going with big swaths of sound, and he handled the movement’s tricky rhythms with dispatch. The final bars were transformative, building to a peak of joy that swept up everyone in the hall. Järvi quickened the tempo slightly, and the trombones’ fortissimo chord at the end sealed the performance with exhilaration.
The applause was long and loud. Both audience and musicians (who insisted that he take a solo bow), made it clear that they loved having Järvi back on the podium.
The concert repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday at Music Hall. Tickets, beginning at $10, available at (513) 381-3300, or order at www.cincinnatisymphony.org. Note: Järvi will lead a special community concert of the Brahms and Schumann works (excluding the Lutoslawski) at 7:30 p.m. tonight at Hamilton High School in Hamilton. Tickets ($20, $10 for students) at (866) 967-8167, or visit showtix4u.com. A portion of the proceeds from this concert will benefit the instrumental music program at Hamilton High School.