Muti returns, with balletic Bruckner and memorable Mozart

Fri Oct 16, 2009 at 3:10 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Riccardo Muti conducts the CSO in Bruckner Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Riccardo Muti conducted the CSO in Bruckner’s Symphony No. 2 Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

The Riccardo Muti era doesn’t officially begin until next fall but you wouldn’t know it from the palpable sense of anticipation in Orchestra Hall Thursday night. After charming the trustees and the press at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s annual meeting on Wednesday, the CSO’s music director designate showed the principal reason he is here, opening his two-week stand with Mozart and Bruckner.

People are still raving about the Verdi Requiem performances the Italian maestro led on his last CSO concerts in January. This week’s meat-and-potatoes Austrian program provided further evidence of what a terrific fit the orchestra’s incoming leader appears to be for the CSO.

Muti’s podium style is vigorous and incisive but not showy or self-regarding. Wide left-arm circles to encourage the violins and crouching low for dynamic dips was about as flamboyant as he got Thursday, preferring to let the music do the talking.

 Yet there’s no doubt that this is definitely a maestro in charge. When a loud cough disturbed the hushed opening notes of the Bruckner Andante, Muti instantly waved off the orchestra and immediately started again without even a glance at the bronchial malefactor.

 Befitting a conductor with extensive time logged in Salzburg and Vienna, Muti led a performance of Mozart’s Haffner symphony (No. 35) with an ideal blend of vitality and refinement. While using sizeable string choirs, he drew a tensile, energized reading without sacrificing an essential grace and elegance.

Tempos were brisk but never breathless, balances scrupulous, with strings slightly dominant, the brass tamed. Muti’s Mozart has a Viennese sensibility, with several neat touches, like the woodwinds’ lilt in the opening movement and the little extra twist to the second violins’ counterpoint in the Minuet. Often rushed off its feet, the Presto was brilliant and joyous, with sterling string articulation.  If this delightful Haffner is any indication, Chicago audiences are in for some memorable Mozart in the Muti years.

 The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra initially rejected Bruckner’s Symphony No. 2, declaring the composer’s opus “unplayable.” (Wagner politely declined the composer’s dedication as well.) Yet a year later, a royally subsidized Vienna performance gave Bruckner one of his first notable successes.

 While the symphony is characteristic of the composer’s vast canvasses in its grandeur and long lines, the Second breathes more of an intimate pastoral air than Bruckner’s other works in the genre.

 It’s been 18 years since the CSO last performed Bruckner’s Symphony No. 2, under Sir Georg Solti. For Chicagoans who came of musical age with the Hungarian conductor’s Bruckner, Muti’s performance of the Second (Nowak edition) was a revelation. One could hardly want for a greater contrast with Solti’s whipcrack intensity or Daniel Barenboim’s Germanic  solemnity.

 Drawing playing of extraordinary transparency, Muti gave us a light-footed, uncommonly refined Bruckner that sheared off the rhetoric and sonic excess. Rarely will one hear Bruckner played with such Haydnesque lightness and charm, Muti even finding an impish humor with the strings’ galumphing three-note motif in the opening movement.

 Yet tuttis had a lean brilliance that made firm impact minus sonic overkill, the brass never raucous or coarse. The CSO strings played gloriously in the Andante, Muti drawing a hymn-like purity, and the Scherzo was imbued with the fresh, open-air rusticity of the Alpine countryside. The final movement had no lack of drama, Muti keeping the triumphant coda in view, and getting hairpin dynamic turns and subtle shading en route without ever sounded pedantic. 

 Perhaps some might find Muti’s performance a bit restrained, but rarely will one hear such balletic, dancing Bruckner as this. Not the only way to interpret this music, but a compelling and beautifully played performance, and we’ll get a different take in a few weeks when Bernard Haitink continues his Bruckner series with the Ninth Symphony.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Sunday.; 312-294-3000.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Muti returns, with balletic Bruckner and memorable Mozart”

  1. Posted Oct 16, 2009 at 7:11 pm by Barbara Siek

    Excellent review of Muti’s considerable strength as a conductor. Fans of the great CSO have been in high anticipation. The question on my mind is how difficult a balancing act it will be for Maestro Muti to serve the CSO and also as the new Director of the Rome Opera House.

  2. Posted Oct 18, 2009 at 12:50 am by larryj

    I would guess not very difficult. In the early years of his Chicago tenure, Sir Georg Solti was still leading the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and also held positions with the Orchestre de Paris and London Philharmonic during his CSO years. It’s not unusual for international conductors to hold down two or three positions at the same time.
    Lawrence A. Johnson

Leave a Comment