Muti, CSO close series with deep and powerful Brahms

Fri May 12, 2017 at 1:30 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Riccardo Muti conducted the CSO in Brahms' Third and Fourth Symphonies Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Riccardo Muti conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Brahms’ Third and Fourth Symphonies Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Riccardo Muti led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the second and final installment of his two-week Brahms cycle Thursday night. The evening marked the CSO music director’s first local performances of the Third and Fourth symphonies, which largely proved more consistent than last week’s concerts.

Though it is the shortest and most lightly scored of the composer’s four works in the genre, Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 has its share of interpretive challenges, not least the constant tempo fluctuations.

Muti was at his finest in the opening movement, with pacing virtually faultless. The sense of something rising and momentous in the initial chords was fully manifest and Muti’s organic direction made the quicksilver turns fluid and inevitable. The tricky balancing between the restless surges and woodsy peace of the second theme was artfully rendered. As last week, all repeats were taken, but so judiciously handled that the music never seemed too long and always led the ear on to the next bar.

Most importantly, the performance captured a kind of inchoate world-weariness where much of this music lives. The Andante was equally fine, clarinetist Stephen Williamson and bassoonist Keith Buncke beautifully blended in the opening pages, reflective of the immaculate textures throughout. There was no unwonted tension here, with Muti and the players conveying the relaxed, song-like lilt, passing moments of unease marked but not overplayed.

So idiomatic and convincing was the first half of the performance that it made Muti’s heavy-handed take on the third movement even more baffling. The overly measured pace and emphatic underlining of the main theme emerged as bizarrely stilted and awkward—more pokey Allegretto than poco Allegretto. Zooming in on dynamic details for extreme close-ups felt the opposite of natural and lost the movement’s charm and greater perspective in the process.

Fortunately, the performance was back on track in the finale. The main theme proceeded in its amiable, galumphing fashion amid fiery outbursts, and Muti skillfully negotiated the steep decelerando of the close, even if the glowing solace of the coda wasn’t quite there Thursday night.

No complaints about the performance of the Fourth Symphony after intermission, which was overall the most successful of the series. The opening Allegro kept boldly projected drama and lean lyricism in alignment, with combustible playing across all sections and a surging idiomatic momentum that felt just right. The third movement was almost explosive in its leaping exuberance.

Yet it was the Andante, which provided the highlight of the performance and of the evening. Muti can sometimes be cool and exterior in slow movements, but here he led a performance that, while meticulously balanced, also conveyed the depth of emotion in this music–Brahms’ brand of stoic yearning–with resplendent, glorious string playing.

The Fourth was sealed with a closing Passacagalia on the same high level. Each of the rugged theme’s iterations were richly and vividly characterized–the baleful trombones and Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson’s long, winding flute solo highlights—building to a tough, craggy and uncompromising coda. In his final symphony Brahms did not go gently into the dark night.

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

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Muti, CSO close series with deep and powerful Brahms”

  1. Posted May 15, 2017 at 11:11 am by Brad

    I went to the Saturday night concert, and the performance of the 4th Symphony was especially stunning. The 3rd, while also excellent, didn’t quite match it. The Poco Allegretto felt so lethargic that it might collapse under its own weight. Too bad, but a minor complaint about an otherwise incredible evening.

    During the ovations, Muti made his way through the Orchestra to personally congratulate Daniel Gingrich. That was great to see, and very well-deserved. What a horn player! I hope the day comes when “Acting” is removed from his title.

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