A renewed Muti, CSO return to Shostakovich

Fri Apr 08, 2011 at 6:15 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The triumphant Chicago Symphony Orchestra performance of Verdi’s Otello led by Riccardo Muti Thursday night set the bar exceedingly high for Friday afternoon’s program at Orchestra Hall.

Happily, there was little letdown from the previous evening, in a more conventional program reshuffled from earlier this season with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 as the main event.

It was the same Shostakovich work that Muti was rehearsing February 3 when he suddenly passed out, fell, and wound up fracturing his jaw and several facial bones, the result of a heart arrhythmia.

Repaired, healthy and with a pacemaker installed, Muti was again the picture of energized and vibrant health at Friday’s matinee, directing the CSO musicians in vigorous and animated fashion.

The playing was not quite as airtight as in the previous evening’s Verdi, but this was still a powerful and eloquent performance. The CSO’s music director has the full measure of the long opening movement directing an organic moulded reading that brought out the searching meditation and explosive power. (The movement was temporarily marred by an aleatory cell-phone contribution of Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy — from the purse of a Symphony Center usher.)

The Scherzo was tautly rhythmic and the epic Largo — the section that Muti was rehearsing when he collapsed –proved the high point of the afternoon. With notably hushed and refined string playing, Muti distilled the music’s sense of dark unease and bleak concentration.

Muti steered a middle course in the hectic finale — the rejoicing not empty but decidedly tempered at a moderate tempo yet lacking nothing in excitement or brassy impact. A strong and imposing Shostakovich performance that will likely gain even more in depth and polish before it’s performed at Carnegie Hall.

The first half of the program was an apt demonstration of how Muti’s podium charisma and attentive detailing can make a convincing argument for works off the lower shelves of the repertory.

It’s good that Muti is championing some rarely heard music, such as that of his compatriot, Lugi Cherubini. Still, the Overture in G major is not one of Cherubini’s stronger works. With pallid thematic material and rum-ti-tum scoring the Overture doesn’t exactly reveal the Italian composer as a neglected master, but Muti drew a reading of fire and elegance that made the best possible case.

Liszt’s Les preludes is another Muti standard. Friday’s performance didn’t have quite the sense of occasion and panache of the al fresco rendering by the same forces at Millennium Park last fall yet the CSO served up a bravura and gleaming reading.

Muti deftly found a way to make this potboiler work, even for Liszt skeptics, alertly marking dynamics, polishing up the tonal brilliance, and underplaying the unhealthy vulgarity as much a possible.

The program will be repeated April 17 at Carnegie Hall in New York.

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