Muti returns to CSO with distinctive Schubert

Fri Mar 21, 2014 at 1:14 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Riccardo Muti conducted the CSO in Schubert's "Great" C major symphony Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Riccardo Muti conducted the CSO in Schubert’s “Great” C major symphony Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Riccardo Muti is back in town and, inspired as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is week to week, there’s an extra verve and electricity in the air (and on the stage) when the musicians’ popular Italian music director takes the podium.

This first of his two March programs offered another installment in Muti’s Schubert cycle, this week the “Great” C major Symphony.

Many conductors view Schubert’s epic Ninth as the first “big” Romantic symphony of the 19th century, going for forceful attacks and a brawny approach.

Muti’s style is consistent with his preceding performances of Schubert’s earlier symphonies, yet more striking here for his firm refusal to make the C-major sound like Tchaikovsky.

Thursday’s performance was one of Classical restraint, gracious poise and attention (rarely observed by many) to the quieter dynamics of the score—as if to say “Yes, this is forward-looking music but we still haven’t left the early 19th century.” Characteristically, string tone was honed to a resplendent polish with textures of bracing clarity.

Yet while Schubert’s melodies had lean warmth and firm rhythmic impetus, the work’s distinctive elements were manifest as well, the subtle tragic overtones palpable yet not overplayed. The strange moment in the Andante when the amiable main theme slips its moorings and the music comes to an abrupt halt was all the more effective for being kept in scale. Muti and the orchestra cut loose in the finale yet the music was exhilarating more for the uniformly accurate and bracing articulation rather than mere speed.

The orchestra playing was to the CSO standard with fine horn work by Daniel Gingrich and effortlessly stylish oboe solos by Eugene Izotov. It was also nice to see the CSO’s prodigal principal clarinetist, Stephen Williamson, back for this week’s concerts. (He will rejoin the CSO–hopefully for good this time—in September.)

The first half of the evening offered Schumann’s Piano Concerto with Mitsuko Uchida as soloist, a resked from 2011 due to a Muti medical cancellation.

Uchida has become a beloved figure in Chicago through her annual appearances performing Mozart concertos.  The pianist is also well suited to the fantasy element of Schumann and conveyed that elusive expression well. She dispatched the first-movement cadenza gracefully and brought an apt cantabile style to the Intermezzo.

Yet in her third Chicago program in a fortnight, it’s hard not to notice that Uchida’s technical lapses are becoming more and more frequent. There were several clinkers and missed notes Thursday night, as was also the case in her Mozart concerto and “Trout” quintet last week. The finale had moments of verve but just as many passages that seemed alternately cautious and overemphatic.

One was drawn to the deft and transparent accompaniment of Muti and the orchestra as much as Uchida’s solo playing, with Williamson’s rich clarinet playing a standout.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday.; 312-294-3000.

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