Muti, CSO launch Beethoven series, going from First to Third with mixed results

Fri Sep 27, 2019 at 1:11 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Riccardo Muti conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in an all-Beethoven program Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

If you’ve been living on Mars, you may have missed the news that the international music world has embarked on an extended celebration of the 250th birthday anniversary of  Ludwig van Beethoven. Never mind that his actual 250th birthday—December 16, 1770—will take place next season in 2020-2021. For Ludwig van—and music organizations that like having a rationale to book a popular composer’s works—-one year is just not enough.

Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra are marking the occasion with a complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies, the first installment of which was presented Thursday night. Subsequent programs will follow in 2020, from February through June.

Some have asked whether we really need to hear another round of Beethoven symphonies when these works are regularly performed in Chicago—and while vast tracts of repertoire continues to lie unexplored in the tenth year of Muti’s reign as CSO music director.

Absolutely, we do—whether the motivation is to fete Beethoven or for Muti to record the cycle one last time with the CSO as he has stated, or both. 

No other composer so seismically changed the world of music before or since  than the scruffy genius from Bonn. Beethoven expanded, deepened and transformed every genre of music in which he wrote, from symphonies and concertos to string quartets and piano sonatas. (The CSO is also presenting a complete cycle of the 32 sonatas this season by a bevy of top keyboard artists, leading off  with Kirill Gerstein October 13).

On Thursday night, Muti opened the cycle with the First and Third symphonies—two of the three Beethoven symphonies which he has never performed previously in Chicago (No. 6 is the other). The hall was packed to the rafters, unlike last week’s opener. Yet while both symphonies were gloriously played by the musicians, the results proved oddly mixed and in an unexpected way.

Completed after several false starts in 1800 at age 29, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C major outwardly seems to inhabit the galant world of Haydn and Mozart. Yet even in this first effort in the genre, there are signs that we are not in classical Vienna anymore—the antic subversive humor, the vaulting through a dizzying number of keys, and, especially, the bristling physicality in fast music previously unheard of in polite courtly company.

Muti led a quicksilver reading that seemed ideally poised, conveying the grace of the Rococo world from which the work hailed while underlining the quirky individual elements of the young upstart, both here and to come. Muti’s tempos seemed fractionally slow at times for 21st century Beethoven and in the first movement one would have liked more of the playful humor to come across.

But so much was right about this performance—from the energized opening movement to the balletic elegance of the slow movement and the rhythmic vigor of the Menuetto (Beethoven’s first symphonic scherzo despite the Haydn-esque title). The finale was wholly delightful—Muti making the hesitant, decorous ascending notes seem almost apologetic before they suddenly emerge as the whirlwind main theme, whipped off in scintillating fashion by the violins every time. The playing across all sections offered vivacity and brilliance without ever seeming out of scale or losing an essential refinement.

Just three years later came the Symphony No. 3 and music would never be the same. Beethoven famously (and naively) dedicated the Eroica to Napoleon; when he learned the French general had declared himself emperor and betrayed the composer’s democratic/humanitarian ideals, Beethoven angrily scratched out the dedication with such intensity that his quill tore through the manuscript page.

With the Eroica, Beethoven pushed the structural boundaries and expressive capabilities of the symphony to a place no one had ever attempted before—a 50-minute epic encompassing heroic struggle, dark despair, and bumptious energy, concluding—perhaps symbolically— in a free-wheeling set of variations on the main theme of his ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus.

One would have thought that the Eroica would be a suitable fit for the CSO music director’s dramatic and clear-cut style. (and his humanitarian ideals). But Thursday’s uneven performance of the Third Symphony was a surprising letdown—offering worthy belated moments and long stretches when the high-gloss music-making seemed only about itself and largely external to the essentials of the piece. 

The two big opening chords that herald a new musical epoch zipped by with little impact or effect. Throughout the first movement, the playing had all the refinement and ensemble cohesion one expects with dynamics marked and precisely calibrated and balances impeccable. Yet there was little fire or urgency in the performance—this in Beethoven’s most ground-breaking and revolutionary orchestral score (before the Ninth). Despite the often-glorious playing, this Eroica felt old-fashioned and at times just plain dull.

William Welter contributed affecting elegiac oboe solos to the ensuing funeral march. Yet here too, for all the attention Muti focused on the notes and dynamics, there was little depth of expression or intensity of feeling to this vast outpouring of grief. The music-making felt cool and detached, at times even soulless. One felt like we were being presented with a carbon-dated examination of the score rather than a performance of the music within it.

This Eroica sprang to life belatedly in the Scherzo with a fizzing vitality and nicely raspy-raucous horns in the trio. The concluding movement was the high point of the performance. With each iteration richly varied and characterized—Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson’s flute solo most notably—the finale had a satisfying unity and cumulative impact that many performances of the Third Symphony lack. Too bad the first two movements were not on the same level.

The evening led off with a late Beethoven work, the Consecration of the House Overture. Composed for the rededication of the Josefstadt Theater in Vienna, the expansive work shows some Baroque influences from the composer’s reverence of Handel. 

Muti led a grandly scaled yet flexible reading that conveyed the ceremonial inspiration, the stately tempo for the initial theme lending an apt bit of pomposity. Yet he kept textures light and airy, letting the detailed lines of the double fugue emerge clearly, as with the goofily gamboling bassoons. The musicians brought vivacious and high-spirited playing to the festive final section.

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

Posted in Performances

7 Responses to “Muti, CSO launch Beethoven series, going from First to Third with mixed results”

  1. Posted Sep 28, 2019 at 12:23 am by Robert Stephan

    Go back to the Solti years. I was rather embarrassed by the Friday afternoon performances of everything. The musicians are fine. TURN THEM LOOSE. This is Beethoven! For Gods sake. Way..way too gentle…quiet…absolutely zero tension. I could see some of the older players in the String section wanting to GO! I myself an accomplished enough musician playing both these symphonies and I was TRULY bored. Not the musicians’ fault.

    Maybe the orchestra needs more young stallions..probably not..but what the heck. If someone asks why more young people don’t come to CSO concerts…look no further than a truly uninspired performance. I have a feeling most of the musicians feel the same way.

  2. Posted Sep 29, 2019 at 1:52 am by Chuck McCall

    The trumpet section and horn section each have new principal players.They sounded out of place to me during the Eroica symphony at Friday afternoon’s performance. They do not yet sound like part of the CSO. I remember a long-term member of the brass section once remark that any musician that joins the CSO has a lot of catching up to do. I see his point. Bud Herseth, former CSO principal trumpet, said in 1997 Australian radio interview that as a player “….you have to listen to others, you can’t always be self-important and play it exactly the way you want and not pay attention to everybody else…”

    Herseth also said that playing together for a long time helps with the unification of style and sound, so to be fair, the new principals will need some time to catch up with the rest of the orchestra to achieve the typical sound production quality of the CSO.

    Also, at Friday’s performance, the new principal trumpet was wearing a tie but did not have his shirt fully buttoned, which looked out of place with the other male members of the orchestra, who did.

    I agree with earlier comment – as least as it applies to the Eroica performance — that the performance on Friday was quite dull and lacked tension. As a very long term subscriber, I believe a dull performance is (essentially) never because of the CSO musicians. The only limitation on the CSO — except as noted above regarding new players — is the quality of the conductor’s ideas about how a composition should be played. The orchestra can give the conductor what the conductor wants.

  3. Posted Sep 29, 2019 at 2:48 pm by Stickles

    I came to the Thursday night concert and the reviewer was spot on in his assessment of the evening. Muti treated the Eroica far too seriously.Dedicated to Napolean or not, it is till a work of a 30-some year old. For one thing Muti should have stayed with the reduced strings as in the first half. As much as I was marveling at the clarity and the elasticity in the double basses in the First Symphony, disappointment soon set in when the extra heft was felt immediately after two additional bases were inserted in the second half. The larger strings softened the overall orchestra color. The slower tempi didnt help either.

    All the new principles Muti hired have changed their playing to fit into the current form of the orchestra. The one who did not was denied tenure 8 months into the job. Cooper was principal in Berlin. Like Williamson his sound is very different from the brawn of Clevenger and Gingrinch, however I am sure we will all come to embrace his p!aying. Battalan is like a wild Andalusian horse, and needs more seasoning. However he is the only trumpeter in my recent memory who could play with Bud’s intensity. Still he will need to learn to rein in his power more often than not if he wants to survive the final cut.

    Of course my best wishes are with these two excellent and deserving new additions to our band. Muti’s Beethoven will always remain a mixed bag. Even so I am really looking forward to No 6 (winds heaven) and No 7 (our new trumpet). And rumor has it that Muti will be attempting Misa Solemnis next fall, so that will be interesting.

  4. Posted Sep 29, 2019 at 3:59 pm by Jeff

    I too was distressed (and bored) by Friday’s performance, through no fault of the CSO’s exceptional musicians. I generally find Muti’s interpretations/interventions to be tedious–tempos often sag noticeably (the Eroica 1st movement’s Allegro Con Brio collapsed into a leisurely Allegro Moderato by the end), large sections of our string players’ bows go unused most nights, their spiccato playing usually isn’t allowed to bite or bounce, dynamics across all sections are rarely enough (whether loud or soft), and the trumpets apparently (if Friday’s concert is a sign) are no longer permitted to play as loudly as the bassoons or flutes. Muti seems intent on extracting every last tooth from our once ferociously virtuoso orchestra.

    I often hear that we’re fortunate to have “The Greatest Living Verdi Conductor”, but the problem is that the CSO isn’t an opera orchestra most of the year, and Muti never evolved into an inspired conductor of symphonic repertoire. Touting Muti’s Verdi credentials is therefore like the Chicago Bulls crowing that they recruited a phenomenal shortstop. Our great orchestra and its audience deserve better.

  5. Posted Sep 30, 2019 at 5:14 pm by Tod Verklärung

    In support of Jeff, the recordings Muti made of Beethoven and Brahms symphonic works in Philadelphia never came in for extravagant praise, even at the time they were issued. Nor are they mentioned in the critical lists of standout versions of the symphonies. By comparison, orchestral showpieces in his discography do receive some attention.

  6. Posted Oct 01, 2019 at 7:02 am by sam

    Compare the Beethoven to this week’s online broadcast of Dvorak 9th, which had vitality, verve, and vim.There is also a Dvorak 5th under Muti in the online broadcasts that is quite fine and shows off the winds nicely as well. Frankly Muti ought to be recording the Dvorak cycle rather than the Beethoven. He has little to say about Beethoven, and the Chicago recordings will be eclipsed by other orchestras doing the same cycle the same year. Too bad, whereas Chicago actually has a good Czech lineage with Kubelik…

  7. Posted Oct 04, 2019 at 9:44 am by Mark

    I agree that Muti’s interpretations do not always match his stature, and frankly he is not alone among star conductors today. I found his Beethoven recordings with the The Philadelphia inconsistent, but the 7th and 8th symphonies were standouts. It remains to be seen if he has anything more to add with the upcoming CSO cycle.

    However, overall I like his changes to the sound of the CSO, which I believe started with Haitink. To my ears, the Solti era—particularly near the end— is not something to hold up as a standard. There have been a lot of improvements, but there are times when the players seem to want to go louder and are held back. They play along albeit begrudgingly.

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