Muti, CSO wrap their season with stirring Bruckner

Sat Jun 23, 2012 at 12:28 pm

By Michael Cameron

Riccardo Muti conducted the CSO in music of Paganini and Bruckner Thursday night.

​There was a palpable sense of occasion Friday night at Symphony Center as Riccardo Muti brought the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s downtown season to a rousing, celebratory close. The two works chosen for the occasion could hardly be cut from more different cloth. Both performances were compelling and persuasive, yet ran contrary to the stereotypical baggage associated with each.

​The choice of Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 1 as a vehicle for concertmaster Robert Chen might not seem at first blush to be an obvious one. No doubt Chen has the technical chops for this stupendously difficult work, but he is known more for polished, understated classicism than the flamboyant showmanship most often associated with this concerto.

​In place of swashbuckling bravura, Chen brought charm, elegance and good humor to this rather slight segment of the violin canon. Melodies were suffused with sunny Italianate allure, and the violinist’s bow work was remarkably crisp and nimble. Carl Flesch’s fiendishly difficult first movement cadenza was dispatched with breathtaking agility, and without the sense of struggle that can make this concerto sound more like competitive sport than musical journey.  ​

​Muti may not strike Brucknerians as the most natural exponent of the Austrian’s grand symphonic adventures. Nevertheless, when his CSO tenure began he made clear his intensions to explore Bruckner (and avoid Mahler), at least in his opening seasons. His first excursion into this repertoire was an acclaimed performance of the Second Symphony in 2009, and for this season finale he choose the more difficult and problematic Symphony No. 6.

This idiosyncratic performance was not likely to supplant fond memories of that work by his immediate predecessors Bernard Haitink and Daniel Barenboim, both notable Bruckner interpreters.  Yet Muti’s decision to spotlight two of the composer’s least popular symphonies (and the equally underplayed First Symphony next season) speaks to his high regard for the composer and his confidence in his own distinctive vision of these behemoths.

​Muti’s recording of the Symphony No. 6 with the Berlin Philharmonic a quarter century ago was notable for stately tempos, a tendency continued and even exaggerated Friday. Yet there was nothing leisurely about the sound he drew from his forces, molded from lean muscle and sinew, with nary a hint of the central European “cushion” thought essential by many of the composer’s most acclaimed exponents.

​For Muti the Maestoso indication of the first movement suggested a repression of momentum, an invitation to luxuriate in his laser-etched inner voices. Above the percolation, grand plateaus were constructed from dense layers of string sound and searing brass climaxes. The architecture was laid out clearly, cogently, and patiently, without excessive stress on tempo changes or micromanaged phrasing.

​The second movement also unfolded deliberately as the maestro spun layers of luxuriant string choruses and coaxed mournful woodwind lines. The scherzo provided the concert’s most memorable episodes, marked by extremes in dynamics and intensely bright colors. Quiet string pizzicatos were coaxed to the limits of audibility and brass punctuations were almost painful in their technicolor brilliance. The hunting calls by the horn quintet were delightfully warm, ringing and utterly beguiling. ​This symphony’s final measures can seem almost arbitrary, but Muti’s innate dramatic instincts made for a resolute, stirring conclusion. The CSO faithful were quick to their feet.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday.; 312-294-3000.

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