Muti brings out the drama in Brahms symphonies with CSO

Fri May 05, 2017 at 2:10 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Riccardo Muti conducted Brahms' Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Riccardo Muti conducted Brahms’ Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

When was the last time you heard Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 on the first half of a program?

That rare event happened Thursday night at Orchestra Hall when Riccardo Muti opened his two-week Brahms cycle with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra playing the first two symphonies of the German composer.

Brahms’ symphonies have been a touchstone for Riccardo Muti throughout his career and he recorded all the Brahms works during his Philadelphia Orchestra tenure.

Yes, Brahms is not exactly the last word in repertorial adventure. But Muti has only done the Second Symphony to date in his Chicago tenure, and the works are varied, deep and interpretively challenging enough to warrant an integral cycle by any music director.

Philip Huscher’s fascinating historical program note shows how times and tastes have changed, with Brahms’ symphonies criticized as dry and academic works by local critics when Theodore Thomas first introduced them to Chicago audiences. No such issues exist today when the difficulty is bringing freshness and individuality to such popular and often-played music.

The Symphony No. 1 would seem an especially good fit for Muti and so it proved, with the C-minor work receiving the more convincing performance Thursday night. As one might expect, the stern, indomitable drama of the opening pages were put across with punchy authority, and emphatic hammering timpani.

While Muti’s fleet pace and taut direction certainly presented the sturm und drang turbulence with daunting power, at times his direction felt unyielding and one would have liked him to loosen the reins a bit to allow the contrasting lyrical episodes to blossom more fully. That iron control and tension largely continued in a rather somber Andante sostenuto, which didn’t offer quite the pastoral contrast, although Robert Chen’s flickering vibrato and sweet-toned violin solos provided recompense.

Likewise, the Allegretto was quick and light on grazioso. The performance culminated in a finale where all the threads came together convincingly. The ominous, tempest opening–hard pizzicatos like raindrops–segued into the storm clouds parting for a noble horn solo by Daniel Gingrich, who played magnificently all evening. Muti built and varied the contrasting material with cumulative impact and the darkness wasn’t dispelled even in the coda with the final chords hard and implacable.

The Second Symphony is a sunnier work–by Brahms’ standard–and Muti drew a lighter string sonority in the opening theme that imbued the music with an airy pastoral quality. Yet there was no lack of urgency or edge in the ensuing development section. The CSO’s music director appeared to take every repeat, which made the opening movement long indeed; but he skillfully sustained the argument, underlining the darker undercurrents while Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson’s avian flute solos proved wonderfully bucolic.

The Adagio of the Second is among Brahms’ finest and most characteristic slow movements, a stoic, ruminative meditation shaded by melancholy. Muti’s direction was typically concentrated, yet rather cool and impatient in expression, missing the deep vein of feeling in this music. Solo lines felt micromanaged at times from the podium and one wished the conductor would just let his musicians play.

The Allegretto was duly rustic and piquant, the quickish trio making the requisite contrast. In the finale–the most exuberant music in Brahms’ oeuvre–Muti kept the music on a firm leash, sacrificing something in animal excitement with a steady tempo maintained even at the coda. Still, there was compensation, with contrasting episodes fully attended to, and some hairpin tempo fluctuations, which kept things interesting for the players and the audience.

There were a striking number of substitutes on stage for this important Muti program, which likely accounted for some of the playing sounding tight and unsettled with more than a few ensemble lapses.

It’s never a good idea to go into a Brahms cycle without your top oboist and Alex Klein was missing in action for the second straight week. (A CSO spokeswoman said only that Klein “was indisposed and taking a few weeks off.”) The chair was filled by Cynthia Koledo DeAlmeida, principal of the Pittsburgh Symphony, who proved adequate but not much more than that.

Local flutist Rachel Blumenthal filled the second flute chair capably. And George Vosburgh, recently retired as Pittsburgh Symphony principal trumpet, was back with his old CSO colleagues in the brass section.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.; 312-294-3000

Posted in Performances

6 Responses to “Muti brings out the drama in Brahms symphonies with CSO”

  1. Posted May 05, 2017 at 8:04 pm by Mark

    I agree that the First Symphony was the more successful of the two works. Muti lost me with the last movement of the Second Symphony. He slowed the tempo and stretched out some of the phrases. Momentum was lost and there seemed to be little relation to the prior three movements. Otherwise, these were very good performances, but not so memorable that one would expect from a conductor of this reputation.

  2. Posted May 06, 2017 at 10:23 am by Mary Goetsch

    On Friday B performance at 1:30 pm a first violinist apparently became ill and had to leave, taking her precious violin with her as she staggered and clung to the railing. Another first violinist then had to get up to help. My question is, why is the custom to always take your violin with you? She might have dropped it! It also required another player to drop what she was doing, temporarily. Is the musician OK?

  3. Posted May 06, 2017 at 12:28 pm by Tod Verklärung

    In response to Mary G, my hunch is that taking your (usually very expensive) violin with you is pretty instinctive and habitual. Moreover, this woman looked very ill: unable to go down the stairs, trembling, and eventually collapsing into the well behind the violin section before a man (who the other violinist summoned backstage) picked up her prone body and carried her inside.

  4. Posted May 06, 2017 at 4:09 pm by Lawrence A. Johnson

    A CSO spokeswoman said Saturday that the second violinist who was feeling weak and helped offstage during Friday’s concert recovered and was “feeling fine” later in the afternoon.

  5. Posted May 10, 2017 at 3:10 pm by Mary Goetsch

    I am old enough to remember the days when any medical doctor in the audience would feel it instinctive to get up quickly and rush to the stage to help. Of course, perhaps not in a concert hall this size. Thanks to Tod who apparently sits closer than I and could see the action. Also, for CSO to positive report and not leaving patrons guessing. With so many subs, probably an okay time to happen; never for the affected musician, don’t get me wrong. Still a wonderful concert!

  6. Posted May 11, 2017 at 10:43 am by Dennis Connor

    Attended last Thursday’s (5-4-17) Brahms concert. It was interesting the repeats were done in the First Movements of both Symphonies. Maestro Muti’s concept of the string sound is warm and lyrical. The Symphony in D had a very warm and pastoral quality; am looking forward to 3 and 4 for this next week.

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