Bernard Labadie conducts the CSO

Few of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's periodic forays into the era predating the standard symphonic repertory are as intelligently programmed and engagingly performed as the one Bernard Labadie is directing this weekend at Symphony Center.

Labadie, music director of the ensemble Les Violons du Roy, in Quebec City, is joined by his Canadian compatriot, the splendid pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin, for a program of late-Classical period works presented rather like a progressive dinner, with unfamiliar starters leading up to the main courses of Haydn and Beethoven.

Along with a familiar Beethoven symphony and a not-overly-familiar Haydn keyboard concerto, the audience is introduced to two obscure, late 18th-century symphonies by German composers the CSO has never played before – Henri-Joseph Rigel's Symphony in C minor (Opus 12, No. 4), and Joseph Martin Kraus' Symphony in E minor.

The performances Labadie led with reduced CSO forces on Thursday night displayed these compact, three-movement symphonies – "missing links" between late Haydn and early Beethoven – as no dusty historical curiosities but, rather, music of quality that deserves wider attention, especially the Kraus work.

"The Swedish Mozart," as the composer was called, was born the same year as Mozart and died a year later. Kraus spent most of his brief career attached to the court of King Gustavus III in Stockholm, Sweden. Listening to his E-minor symphony, you can well appreciate why Haydn and Gluck so admired his music: His long-lined melodies, pungent harmonies and ingenious counterpoint look backward to Haydn's so-called "Sturm und Drang" style, forward to Beethoven and Schubert.

The Rigel symphony is less original but it, too, shows a fluent command of craft, along with a lyrical grace, that tells you why he was one of the most respected musicians working in Paris at the end of the 18th century. Mozart manqué, I'd call him.

Labadie has had a good deal more success than several of his historically minded colleagues in infusing the CSO players with a willingness to embrace the tenets of period practice. For both symphonies, he had the CSO strings playing with little or no vibrato, making for leaner textures and crisper articulations. The extra kick he gave the rhythms threw the exchanges between the first and second violins into crackling relief. Such was their energy and elegance that you would never have guessed the musicians had never touched this music before.

We tend to associate Hamelin with the big, barnstorming virtuoso repertory, but his recordings of the Haydn piano sonatas and concertos for the Hyperion label prove his deep feeling for that composer's music as well. Haydn's technical demands may be far fewer, but an interpreter's ability to breathe new life into music conceived for the late-18th –century keyboard is greatly tested.

Hamelin did so with absolute conviction, his springy rhythms and crystalline fingerwork balanced against the strings and winds in such a way that there was a feeling of easy give-and-take between the piano and orchestra. Hamelin and Labadie are close colleagues and their musical responses to each were like the conversation of kindred souls. Hamelin's choice of Wanda Landowska's cadenzas was in itself intriguing: I didn't hear Haydn in them so much as harmonic intimations of Mozart, Beethoven and beyond.

Hamelin was called back to the stage for several ovations and he gave the grateful audience a tiny bit more Haydn as an encore – the Presto finale from the Sonata in A major, No. 26. It lasted hardly more than a minute.

You almost felt the same about Labadie's Beethoven Symphony No. 1, which closed the program.

His fleet, lean, exhilarating reading made recent CSO interpreters come across as abysmal slowpokes. Here was Beethoven tailored for the early 21st century, combining the pungency and transparency we associate with "period" performances with the vibrancy and color of modern-instrument versions. The CSO musicians kept pace remarkably well with Labadie's uniformly brisk tempos, even in the Menuetto when I felt he drove the music too fast. In that same movement, the rumblings of the small drums, played with hard sticks, cut through the texture like rifle shots. It was a small but welcome touch in a freshly reimagined reading.

John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune
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