Muti’s thrilling Brahms symphony proves worth the wait

Thu Mar 08, 2012 at 1:53 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Riccardo Muti led the CSO in music of Brahms Wednesday night at Symphony Center.

To date, Riccardo Muti’s programs with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have centered largely on either blockbuster choral or opera showpieces or offbeat programs spiced with rarities. Standard Austro-German fare has been less evident his first two seasons. For instance,  music of Johannes Brahms has been a cornerstone of Muti’s career, yet the only Brahms he has conducted to date in Chicago has been the German Requiem.

On Wednesday night at Symphony Center, the CSO music director righted that balance with two of the composer’s mainstays, the Violin Concerto and Symphony No. 2.

If the Afterwork Masterworks program—Muti’s first as music director—made for wildly varied results, it wasn’t the fault of the music director or the orchestra who delivered a resounding and memorable performance of Brahms’ Symphony No. 2

One expected great things in the CSO music director’s first local performance of a Brahms symphony, and Wednesday night’s Second Symphony did not disappoint.  In many ways, this Brahms was one of Muti’s finest achievements since taking the reins of the orchestra eighteen months ago. All of the Italian conductor’s considerable musical strengths were manifest—the seamless string ensemble, tonal elegance, expressive detailing, freedom of instrumental solos, and unbridled brilliance—coming together in a magisterial performance of fire and nobility.

With all repeats observed, the opening Allegro non troppo had elemental scale and breadth yet with a Haydenesque lightness, the pastoral element always to the fore, as exemplified by Mathieu Dufour’s bucolic pure-toned flute.

The Adagio was imbued with a searching grandeur of expression and depth of eloquence without teutonic heaviness. The nature feeling of the Allegretto led into a notably blazing and brassy coda—Brahms’ most exultant inspiration—which provided the expected tumultuous ovation, in this case, well deserved. Based on this performance a Brahms cycle should be the next Muti series for the CSO’s Resound label with this memorable Second as the first installment.

Pinchas Zukerman. Photo: Paul Labelle

Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for the performance of Brahms’ Violin Concerto, which preceded the symphony.

In many ways Muti and soloist Pinchas Zukerman seem like antipodal musical personalities with Muti’s taut concentration and scrupulous integrity to the score an odd matchup with Zukerman’s more relaxed approach to music-making.

Despite the generous applause and collegial curtain-calls, there didn’t seem to be much musical sympathy between soloist and conductor throughout the performance. The two men rarely looked at each other and Zukerman’s solo playing and Muti’s accompaniment largely existed in parallel universes.

Zukerman is a fine musician and can be responsive and energized in chamber performances. But when playing with orchestra, he often seems to settle into a kind of distant, one-size-fits-all auto-pilot—playing with a generalized expressive warmth with little intensity or interpretive individuality.

Such was the case Wednesday night with Zukerman once again gliding through the score with an unruffled Olympian detachment—occasionally bending a note or throwing in a slur—but for the most part sounding completely disengaged from the music’s rhythmic dynamism and depth of feeling.

The Adagio—one of the most sublime concerto movements in the literature—came off as merely tepid, with Zukerman’s blandly prettified solo line all on the surface, showing none of the nuanced shading of Eugene Izotov’s expressive oboe solo. Even the gypsy-flavored finale was dull in Zukerman’s hands, with what excitement there was coming from the lean, bristling accompaniment of Muti and the orchestra.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m Thursday and Saturday. cso.org; 312-294-3000

Posted in Performances


2 Responses to “Muti’s thrilling Brahms symphony proves worth the wait”

  1. Posted Mar 08, 2012 at 8:25 pm by John K

    Agree with your review. Although I would put the burden on both Zukerman and Muti for the results of the Violin Concerto. They certainly were not playing together. Good to see that your opinions were not swayed by the response of the audience.

  2. Posted Mar 12, 2012 at 2:07 pm by Andy

    I beg to disagree with the comment and to agree with the article. Zukerman appeared unprepared, without a plan, sloppy .. there were some rare sparkles here and there, but overall … what a disappointment! Muti did his best to give him a chance .. the orchestra played beautifully, but there was not much to interact with. Even the body language of Zukerman was of somebody saying “apologies … I am so very very sorry, I have been so busy the last few months that I had not time to think about this concert …”. Very sad.
    I was so excited to come to this concert and listen Zukerman live for the first time.. the man is clearly a legend, but he was a massive disappointment.
    I was expecting a cold reaction by the audience (I am from Europe), I could not believe it when they gave him a standing ovation???? Odd ..
    The D-Maj Symphony? Magical! Bravo Muti and bravo to the orchestra!