Muti, CSO bring style and gracious charm to Mozart, Haydn

Fri Mar 16, 2018 at 3:36 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Riccardo Muti conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music of Mozart and Haydn Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Riccardo Muti conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music of Mozart and Haydn Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Riccardo Muti returned to town Thursday night for the first of two March residency weeks leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The CSO’s music director will be a more visible local presence the latter half of the season with four additional weeks slated in April and June.

Thursday’s lineup offered a rare Muti program entirely devoted to Classical era-works, with symphonies by Haydn and Mozart, framing the latter’s Sinfonia Concertante, K.364.

With 104 Haydn symphonies to chose from, it would have been nice if Muti had opted for one of the two he hasn’t already done in Chicago, rather than repeating No. 89 in F major (last heard in 2010).

That said, Muti directed a gracious, witty performance that showed his partnership with the CSO at its finest. Characteristic in its immaculate balancing and textural clarity, Muti’s lightly sprung reading made Haydn’s humor register delightfully. The Andante was stately and elegant, the ensuing Minuet jaunty and charming with delicious flute and oboe solos by Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson and guest Nathan Hughes, principal oboe of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. 

The finale was wholly engaging, not least the Austrian country fiddling of the main theme. Muti knows how to sell Haydn’s musical humor with a light, idiomatic touch, and the rhythmic curveballs and dynamic flips were all the more amusing for not being overplayed. As with a lot of repertory, one wishes Muti would program more Haydn in Chicago.

Robert Chen and Paul Neubauer performed Mozart's "Sinfonia Concertante" Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Robert Chen and Paul Neubauer performed Mozart’s “Sinfonia Concertante” Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

CSO concertmaster Robert Chen shared the spotlight with guest violist Paul Neubauer in Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante.

The two soloists proved an evenly matched duo, with Chen’s lithe, pure tone and understated technical ease complementing Neubauer’s nut-brown timbre. Perhaps the violist brought a greater sense of the music’s fantasy with Chen sounding fractionally inhibited, as if wary of drawing a raised eyebrow from his music director.

If not quite plumbing the full depth of the Andante’s tragic vein, the soloists brought a confiding intimacy to the music with the cadenza beautifully rendered by both men with the utmost tonal sensitivity.

A couple brief slips apart, Chen and Neubauer delivered the infectious back-and-forth of the Presto finale–one of Mozart’s most joyful movements–in buoyant style and with light bravura. Muti and the orchestra were alert and sympathetic partners throughout, albeit at some remove from the soloists, as Muti’s accompaniments tend to be.

The evening closed with Mozart’s Symphony No. 36 and, here too, Muti and the orchestra were in exceptional form. The conductor gave the Adagio introduction of the “Linz” fine breadth and grandeur, pointing the way forward for Mozart’s final three symphonies to come. The performance held a breezy charm and focused concentration in skillful alignment, possessing due weight without ever feeling over-intense or out of period; indeed there was a relaxed, gracious quality to the music-making throughout.

Here too the playing of Nathan Hughes was consistently stylish and winning, the guest  principal oboe blending in seamlessly with CSO colleagues as if he has been performing with them for years.

Has the CSO finally found its new principal oboe? If so, Muti and company will have to move fast since Hughes appears to be a virtual lock for the same post with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday at Wheaton College and 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Center.; 312-294-3000.

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