Manfred Honeck conducts pianist Till Fellner – The Chicago Symphony Orchestra performs Mozart and Mahler

Manfred Honeck leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; photo by Todd Rosenberg
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On January 25th, 2018, Conductor Manfred Honeck led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and pianist Till Fellner in Mozart’s grand Piano Concerto No. 25 and Mahler’s epic Fifth Symphony. Additional dates for this program are January 27th and January 30th with all performances at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago.

Whether leading the Orchestra in the Mozart Piano Concerto or in the Mahler, the Maestro was a delight to behold, strong and completely in control, while the pianist was clear, formal, and delicate in his approach. The restrained enthusiasm coupled with fine technique Fellner displayed for his craft was transmitted in the subtle sway of his person and the seemingly effortless manner with which he applied himself to the keyboards. The CSO never failed this evening to live up to its own sterling reputation, the Orchestra members completely engaged, ever-focused, always on the mark.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K. 503, 1786

Among his piano concertos, No. 25, with it’s ample use of wind instruments, is a clear reminder of the composer’s gift for orchestration. His talent for contrast is also brought to the fore; after the “discursive” and extended opening movement, the lyrical second provided an eloquent centerpiece for an exploration by Fellner of the upper registers of the piano.

The concerto’s opening tutti, all the instruments working in elaborate and elegant presentation, announces a four-note motif; there follows the other related themes in this movement. When the piano enters, these are explored in enormous breadth and variety. The middle movement, “Andante”, is relatively simple and serene; as performed, it effectively set off the preceding movement and served as a fluid transition to “one of Mozart’s most serious-minded rondos.”  The thoroughly weighty finale was given a purposeful balance; it was leveled beautifully between strength and subtlety with an adapted sophisticated yet tender gavotte, at once stately, majestic, and passionate.

Pianist Till Fellner; photo by Jean-Babtiste Millot

Gustav Mahler, Symphony #5, 1902

A serious roar is sounded with an opening trumpet fanfare reminiscent- in it’s rhythmic theme- of Beethoven’s 5th; the strings announce a deeply gloomy passage, and the mood is set for this gigantic 5 movement work, the 4th of which is the famous “Adagietto” for strings and harp.

After the first two movements entertain their exploration of the “struggle between darkness and light with no resolution”, the third movement changes utterly, seeming to morph into a large cultural explication seen through the lens of a traditional Germanic folk dance. For Honeck and the CSO- for any conductor and any orchestra- these passages are extremely challenging on multiple levels; reining in yet emphasizing was a delicate yet well-met musical effort.

The fourth movement, the “Adagietto,” scored for strings and solo harp alone, is said to be Mahler’s love letter to his new bride, Alma. It is a lush, intimate and not angst-free interlude, which leads seamlessly into the fantastic Finale. This last movement opens with pastoral tunes often harking back to the earlier movements; as it developed, the musical scope and emotional canvas had this reviewer holding her breath until the last transformative moment.

After the 1st performance of the monumental 5th, Mahler famously stated, “Nobody understood it. I wish I could conduct the first performance 50 years after my death”.

Honeck clearly “understood” this piece and handled the pacing with a virtuosity that gave this musical journey a firm structure and brought the work, replete with contrasts and multiple detours, to a sense of resolution. The CSO, comprised of individual stars that work together as a masterful team, filled Orchestra Hall with vivacious excitement; this was an expert rendition and a fine concert.

Conductor Manfred Honeck; photo by Felix Bored

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