Muti, CSO open season with Italianate Mozart and incendiary Beethoven

Fri Sep 18, 2015 at 1:46 pm

By Michael Cameron

Riccardo Muti makes introductory remarks at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's season-opening concert Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Riccardo Muti makes introductory remarks at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s season-opening concert Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Three years ago, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra went on strike, prompting a last-minute concert cancellation in the second week of the 2012-13 season. Many dispirited fans were turned away from the door, not having heard the news in time to avoid the trip.

The players’ contract is up for renewal again this year, and there were fears that this season opener might be axed as well. Fortunately the musicians chose to forge ahead without a contract for the time being. Tonight’s free concert at Millennium Park and the Symphony Ball on Saturday will also take place as scheduled.

While he didn’t directly address the labor dispute in his opening remarks, Riccardo Muti’s touching tribute to the storied history of the orchestra on the occasion of its 125th season left little doubt as to where he stood on the issue. He drew knowing chuckles from the the audience when he noted that those who take to the podium are “sometimes intelligent, and sometimes not,” but the musicians selflessly draw from their “inner souls” night after night. Music’s centrality to human existence is a common preoccupation for Muti, and his reminder that the rebuilding of La Scala in Milan as the top municipal priority for Italians after World War II was a potent acknowledgement of art’s capacity to heal.

For better or worse, the program was emblematic of a season heavy on standard repertoire, with the occasional nod to novelty. The symphonic repertoire doesn’t get any more familiar than Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 and Beethoven’s Symphony No 5, but there was nothing routine about the readings Muti drew from his players.

However familiar the first movement of the Mozart may be, the famous Molto allegro suggests a number of contradictions that most conductors try to straddle. Muti left no doubt about his view, largely jettisoning the Molto to luxuriate in the Italianate, operatic lyricism that saturates much of the Allegro. The tempo was unhurried, articulations were rounded, and balances adjusted to accommodate melodic content. With the sense of urgency and momentum largely muted, the ear was able to focus on motivic development and textural detail.

If this movement was a qualified success, Muti’s deeply felt reading of the second movement was compelling in every respect. The tempo never lagged, and textures varied precipitously between porcelain delicacy and a gut-wrenching angst more commonly associated with the Romantic era rather than the genial classicism of Mozart. Dissonances are also a prominent feature of the Menuetto, but here Muti’s preference for polite articulations again muted their impact.

Muti’s passion for the stage came to the fore once again in the finale, which even its minor-key sobriety bristled with the high spirits of opera buffa. The tightly etched (nearly) 12-tone unison at the start of the development section sounded as disquieting as ever, and the final pages unfolded with sober exuberance.

As illuminating as the Mozart was from time to time, Muti drew even more impassioned playing in a driving, incendiary account of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. As with the Mozart, endless hearings can dull our appreciation of a work once heard as radical. Though Muti didn’t significantly depart from traditional views of the iconic score, he drew playing from the strings that was as involved and combative as any concert in recent memory. Just when it seemed that the sustained intensity had reached maximum throttle, Muti found a way to turn it up to eleven, with a vigorous detonation from timpanist David Herbert or a punch from the low strings.

The slow movement featured atmospheric playing from clarinetist Stephen Williamson and two guest principals, oboist Jeffrey Rathbun (Cleveland Orchestra) and flutist Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson (Met Orchestra), who is said to be the CSO’s new principal flute designate. The pileup of string voices from low to high in the third movement fugal trio was delightfully raucous, and the unrelieved ferocity of the finale kept listeners perched on the edge of their seats.

This was a program in desperate need of an unjustly neglected masterpiece, but even with Muti’s committed advocacy, Liszt’s final orchestral work, From the Cradle to the Grave, didn’t come close to fitting the bill. The sparse opening viola line was played by the section with scarcely a single hair on their bows, barely passing the threshold of audibility. There were brief flashes of Wagnerian intensity in the second and third movements, but ultimately it received a far better performance than the music deserved. Sometimes posterity commits egregious errors of omission, but alas, this snoozer is not one of them.

Riccardo Muti conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a free concert 6:30 p.m. tonight at Millennium Park featuring Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 and Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Muti, CSO open season with Italianate Mozart and incendiary Beethoven”

  1. Posted Sep 19, 2015 at 4:32 am by Bob Eisenberg

    I write about the performance Thursday night of the Beethoven.

    It seemed to my ears that we were hearing a miracle of execution, particularly in the string playing. The winds were perfect; the tympani were perfect; the oboe sound was not to my taste, but otherwise perfect.

    But the strings were doing things that have not been done on any recording or performance I know of. This was obvious in the famous fugato section of the third movement, and in the tricky passages just before the fugato, but it was also evident in the quite incredible viola work.
    I hope others heard what I did.

    Sadly, I thought Muti’s approach was not “in the same ballpark” of quality or distinction. The first movement was simply much too fast. Listen to the Bernstein Vienna recording to hear what I mean. The last movement was too fast.

    Just because the orchestra can play without a smudge let alone an error at that speed does not mean it should be asked to!!

    Perhaps Muti should be reminded that the musical processing power of the brains of most of his audience is slower than that of musicians like himself, and that too much speed means we average souls cannot hear what is happening.

    (I am a subscriber to the CSO since 1976)
    Bob Eisenberg

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