Muti and CSO strike sparks with Schumann

Fri Apr 26, 2013 at 2:40 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Lest anyone think that Riccardo Muti is not having a good time these days as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Thursday night’s concert provided even more evidence, both musically and visually.

Coming out to conduct the final work of the evening, the CSO music director made a joke to concertmaster Robert Chen, then leapt up on the podium, and acknowledged the ovation. As the applause was still going, he smiled, quickly gave the downbeat and whirled to face the orchestra and launch Schumann’s Rhenish symphony. As usual the musicians were on top of Muti’s fast start and literally didn’t miss the beat.

One almost hesitates to say that the partnership between the CSO and its popular music director is reaching its most comfortable and artistically fulfilling level yet—since every time that seems to happen, another medical crisis happens to set that progress back.

Still, the qualities that have made Muti’s performances with the orchestra so successful both technically and interpretively, seem to be taking on an even more natural and responsive element in recent weeks. The buoyant and delightful performance of the Rhenish symphony–Muti’s first Schumann symphony performance since becoming music director—certainly shows this partnership at a peak.

Schumann tragically would be committed to the asylum just three years after the premiere of this, his Third Symphony, but there are no clouds on the horizon in this sunny work.

The performance had all the Muti trademarks—fire and firm momentum without ever feeling overdriven, and a warm yet taut  lyricism with notably burnished string playing. From the grand opening bars, Muti’s Schumann had weight and heft yet was characteristically light on its feet. The historical tut-tutting about Schumann’s thick scoring seemed irrelevant Thursday with Muti eliciting striking transparency throughout.

The scherzo was all rolling good humor with more dynamic detailing than usually heard, and the fourth movement’s evocation of Cologne Cathedral dark and evocative. The final movement can seem a bit of an anticlimax but here Muti brought out its wry off-kilter cheer winningly.

It was heartening to have Maurizio Poliini back with the CSO after an absence of 16 years, particularly with his friend and compatriot Muti serving as music director, in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21. The Italian pianist, 71, has had some bouts of ill health in recent years, and in fact bowed out of a 2011 Chicago recital.

Pollini’s technique remains in impressive shape, as was shown by a surprisingly fast and largely polished romp through the closing Rondo, with clear articulation and enviable vivacity.

But ultimately this was lackluster and undistinguished Mozart. With Chicago audiences accustomed to hearing Mozart concertos performed by artists like Mitsuko Uchida, Paul Lewis, and Emanuel Ax, the kind of colorless, almost offhand traversal served up by Pollini Thursday felt decidedly routine.

Pollini’s cool approach to music-making has always divided audiences. But there’s a fine line between expressive restraint and insensitivity. The celebrated Andante was blandly phrased and charmless with the pianist’s left hand heavy to the point of distraction.

To make matters worse, Pollini insists on having his own piano shipped for all has concerto engagements. Why is anybody’s guess since his Steinway sounded awful—metallic, colorless, harsh and muddy. I’m sure many in the house Thursday were wondering, as I was, what calamity had befallen the CSO’s excellent house Steinway to make it sound like that.

What pleasures there were in the Mozart came almost entirely from the accompaniment of Muti and the orchestra. Using larger string forces and a more big-boned approach than Uchida, Muti still elicited stylish, energetic playing. The airy lightness of the violins in the opening bars of the slow movement was the highlight of the performance.

Both large works were preceded by deftly chosen curtain-raisers. In Beethoven’s Consecration of the House Overture, Muti drew out the Handelian inspiration of the majestic opening, clarifying textures in the double fugue and assaying the tempo changes with a fluidity and grace that made the frequent shifts seem inevitable, leading to a sonorous and exhilarating coda.

Eisenhower was in the White House and Fritz Reiner was on the podium the last time Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Overture was heard at a CSO subscription concert in 1959. Kudos to Muti for reviving this wonderful work.

Even though Mendelssohn hadn’t traveled by sea when he wrote his 1828 overture, the work is striking for its far-seeing originality, anticipating the programmatic tone poems of Richard Strauss with its evocative depiction of a sea voyage. Muti conjured up a rapt, mystical expression in the opening string passages, the sound almost spiritual and organ-like. The main section had ample vigor with clarion fanfares by the three trumpets, but, how deliciously Muti quelled the clamor for the reprise of that opening section in the hushed coda.

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

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Muti and CSO strike sparks with Schumann”

  1. Posted Apr 28, 2013 at 9:41 am by Keith Miller

    This was one of the most disappointing CSO concerts I ever attended. Muti’s tempos made me feel like I was at a funeral. While the Beethoven had some nice moments, it was missing spirit and spontaneity. The Mozart concerto was a complete disappointment. I think Pollini needs to consider retirement. The Schumann was so slow that I don’t blame the gentleman behind me who snored through the entire symphony. The Mendelssohn was probably the best piece in the program. Not only because it’s rarely performed, but it was a nice performance with luster and plenty of vigor. I’ve heard Muti performed the Schumann “Rhenish” in previous performances and on CD with passion and delight. This was the complete opposite.

  2. Posted Apr 30, 2013 at 11:44 am by D. Fernando

    I was there for the Saturday night performance. Was it my imagination, or did I hear the last chord of the Beethoven dropping in pitch as if the power in a CD player went out? I agree with the above writer about the Mozart. It was disappointing.

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