A great singer’s debut and full-blooded Beethoven from Muti, CSO

Fri Sep 30, 2016 at 1:34 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Joyce DiDonato performed Martucci's "La canzone dei ricordi" with Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Joyce DiDonato performed Martucci’s “La canzone dei ricordi” with Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

As Riccardo Muti begins his seventh season as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, it’s pretty clear that contemporary music in general and American music in particular hold little personal interest for the Italian conductor–some token forays apart–and that seems unlikely to change for the remainder of his Chicago tenure.

The one area where Muti has shown some of the  repertorial adventurousness of his early years is in exhuming neglected concert works of his compatriots. The first half of Thursday night’s program offered two works by a pair of near-exact Italian contemporaries, Alfredo Catalani and Giuseppe Martucci.

In his short life Catalani was prolific in writing for the opera house as well as non-opera genres, with an output that includes three symphonies, a mass, chamber music, and piano pieces. An early death at 39 cut short Catalani’s promising career and he is best known for his final and most successful opera, La Wally, though even that work is rarely revived today.

Catalani’s richly lyrical style is apparent in his Contemplazione, which opened the evening. The long-limbed theme of this stringy work is like an aria without words, and Muti led an elegant, luminous performance that conveyed the Italianate melancholy without tipping over into schmaltz. After the first iteration of that melody, Contemplazione goes on for ten more minutes, and one couldn’t help thinking that Edward Elgar did this sort of salonish string music more convincingly in one third of the duration.

Giuseppe Martucci was that rare Italian composer who never wrote an opera, concentrating on the concert hall, for which he wrote two symphonies, a pair of piano concertos and reams of chamber works and piano music.

Martucci’s Le canzone dei ricordi was the vehicle for a double debut Thursday night: the orchestra’s first performance of Martucci’s song cycle and the belated CSO debut of Joyce DiDonato as soloist.

Le canzone dei ricordi is crafted on a large scale, with seven songs spanning close to 35 minutes. The settings provide some gentle variety, as in the cheerful pastoralism of “Cantava il ruscello la gaia canzone” and the quirky whimsy of “Fior di ginestra.” But the prevailing expressive mode is one of interior rumination and romantic melancholy, set by the song that opens and closes the cycle “No . . . svaniti non sono i sogni,” with its regretful evocation of a past beloved.

There are lovely moments in Martucci’s cycle and skillful brush strokes in the orchestral accompaniment. Yet Le canzone dei ricordi falls short of greatness, lacking a distinctive individual stamp and missing the expressive depth, emotional range and harmonic ingenuity that make a truly great cycle of songs.

Certainly, Joyce DiDonato, resplendent in a silk orange dress, brought the finest possible advocacy to this intriguing work. Singing from a score throughout, she seemed a bit tentative in the first setting, finding her way through music she has surely never previously performed.

Yet she soon was in synch with Martucci’s ruminative style and displayed the consummate artistry local audiences know from her many appearances at Lyric Opera. She conveyed the intense emotional outpouring of “Un vago mormorio mi giunge” and was equally impassioned in the ensuing “Al folto bosco, placida ombria,” with notably sensitive word-painting in this deeply felt setting.

Muti and the orchestra were expert partners, the conductor accompanying his soloist skillfully, balancing Martucci’s more Wagnerian climaxes adroitly, and drawing out the reflective quiet ending masterfully.

“That was exquisite!” exclaimed a visiting friend from Miami after the final chord of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, which closed the evening.

Muti’s Beethoven is a known local quantity by now, imbued with fast tempos, bristling energy, and incisive rhythmic kick, all of which were manifest in Thursday’s performance of the Seventh.

Yet along with the high-sheen, precision ensemble, Muti and the orchestra found a myriad of fresh nuances in this warhorse, most notably with the widely terraced dynamic range drawn out in the somber tread of the Allegretto.

Some over-aggressive timpani playing in the first movement apart, the CSO rose to the occasion superbly in every department, collectively and individually. The CSO woodwind principals are really starting to gel as a unit and Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson’s personality-plus flute playing was delightful throughout.

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

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2 Responses to “A great singer’s debut and full-blooded Beethoven from Muti, CSO”

  1. Posted Sep 30, 2016 at 5:19 pm by Tod Verklärung

    I agree with Mr. Johnson regarding the nuance of the Italian music performed and the shame that so much loving care goes to compositions that one might rightfully neglect in favor of the superior repertoire Mr. Muti eschews. Martucci is a composer only championed by Toscanini in his lifetime and virtually no one since. The verdict of history has been written.

    As to the Beethoven, Friday afternoon’s version was conducted as if by “Ming the Merciless” of “Flash Gordon” fame. Not the curved lines and caresses of the first half, but a relentless, driven account suggesting a victorious, fierce military occupation. The playing was never crude, but never joyous. No “symphony of the dance” was to be found here, unless the dancers wore jackboots. I was reminded of a joke told among CSO players when a conductor doesn’t allow them to achieve the best they can: “We would have done better, but he wouldn’t let us.” The orchestra gave their all and the audience cheered. What else is new?

  2. Posted Oct 03, 2016 at 1:59 pm by MRyan

    I personally thought Muti’s Beethoven Saturday night was exceptional. I really appreciated the extra attention he gave the cello and contrabasses. I thought his tempi came off well. And the performance certainly had a good deal of energy. Not a legendary performance, but certainly some superb playing and interpretation. I only wish the brass could have shined a little more. It seemed like he had them a little too subdued.

    Perhaps my expectations were a little low, however. I’ve been pretty disappointed in his rather mediocre Mahler interpretations. So I was pleasantly surprised to hear some very decent Beethoven.

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