Encore for Abbado at Chicago

One of the big disappointments for the Chicago Symphony family two years ago was the apparent termination of the orchestra's ongoing relationship with Italian conductor Claudio Abbado. Fortunately, that situation was not allowed to last. This season, he returned to the Chicago podium. I caught up with two programs - a Verdi ``Requiem'' and a potpourri benefit concert.

It was clear from both events that Abbado and the Chicago Symphony together are worth bringing together. Then again, Sir Georg Solti, the symphony's music director, has always encouraged the presence of musicmakers who offer a totally different approach from his own. He sees it as complementary to his own work rather than a threat.

The ``Requiem'' is one of Solti's showcase pieces, and it one of Abbado's, too. The Italian maestro's performance with the forces of the La Scala Opera house has recently been transferred to CD (DG-415 976-2), but this recording hardly captures Abbado at his best. Then there is a Thorn EMI/HBO video of his ``Requiem,'' heard at the Edinburgh Festival in 1982 with the London Symphony Orchestra and Edinburgh Festival Chorus. This is Abbado at his peak, with the soloists Margaret Price and Jessye Norman in especially fine form.

But anything captured on audio or video can only be a souvenir of a live Abbado ``Requiem.'' In Chicago, he was truly dazzling. The orchestra responds to him with alertness, willing to give him everything he wants, from stunningly quiet playing - almost upon the threshold of inaudibility - to shattering climaxes that never lose tonal quality. Abbado views the ``Requiem'' as a piece of introspective devotion, despite those mighty climaxes. The anti-theatrical aura that hovered over the reading was especially welcome.

Among the soloists, Margaret Price was in radiant form. Vinson Cole used his light tenor with particular sensitivity, and Bonaldo Giaiotti offered a sonorous, heartfelt performance of the bass's music. Margaret Hillis's excellent Chicago Orchestra Chorus responded to Abbado with commitment and fervor. (If this symphony broadcast is aired in your city, do listen.)

Abbado's second program involved some letting down of hair in operatic selections and Tchaikovsky's ``Marche Slav.'' The first half was devoted to Beethoven - the ``Coriolan'' Overture and the Fourth Piano Concerto, with a tentative Rudolf Firkushny as soloist. In the all-Verdi operatic moments, Ellen Shade impressed with the strength of her soprano and the dramatic thrust with which she delivered the first soprano aria from ``Un Ballo in Maschera.'' Piero Cappuccilli's seamless, long-breathed phrasing made a moment from ``Don Carlo'' remarkable, while Samuel Ramey chose the bass aria from the same opera for his sonorous exhibition.

But it was when Abbado had the orchestra to himself in the Tchaikovsky ``Marche Slav'' that the real magic showed. This hackneyed piece was treated with respect, and Abbado built it steadily to one final climax rather than playing each eruption as a show-stopping event. And in the slightly dry but enchanting acoustics of Orchestra Hall, one could revel in every aspect of this great orchestra's achievements.

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