Mutter delivers luminous Beethoven with CSO; Muti tests positive for Covid again, withdraws from concert

Fri Jun 17, 2022 at 1:32 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Anne-Sophie Mutter performed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Some mysterious power does not want Riccardo Muti to conduct Beethoven’s Violin Concerto when Anne-Sophie Mutter is the soloist.

Just one week into his first season as Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director in 2010, Riccardo Muti became ill—specifics were never released—right before the start of a gala concert where Mutter was set to perform the Beethoven concerto. He bowed out and the celebrated German violinist took on conducting as well as solo duties with a little help from concertmaster Robert Chen.

Flash forward to this week with Mutter slated once again to perform the Beethoven concerto with Muti on the podium. After a week of rehearsals, Muti tested positive for Covid after Thursday morning’s rehearsal and had to withdraw once again, in this penultimate program of his penultimate Chicago season.

In a pre-concert speech, CSOA president Jeff Alexander said that the CSO music director’s “symptoms are very mild and his spirits are high” and that Muti looks forward to being back on the podium soon. Let’s hope that happens, with the season-ending concert performances of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera slated for next week.

This is the second time in ten weeks that Muti has been sidelined by Covid, after the 80-year-old conductor had to pull out of a program in April. On that occasion, Lina González-Granados handled part of a revised program, and Thursday night she took over podium duties for the entire concert and the show went on.

Now in the final month of her tenure as the CSO’s Solti conducting apprentice, González-Granados handled the last-minute assignment with energy and aplomb. With Muti having prepared the program and led all but the last rehearsal, the performances were already largely baked. But give credit to the young conductor for stepping into a difficult situation and directing the orchestra effectively in the evening’s two epic German cornerstones. 

Even with the Covid/podium side-drama, the evening belonged to Anne-Sophie Mutter. Ageless in a midnight-blue strapless gown, the celebrated violinist demonstrated once again why—in more than four decades before the public—she remains one of our genuinely great and individual artists.

Of the five most-played romantic concertos, Beethoven’s is the only one that fails to come off more often than it does. Spanning 45 minutes with an expansive first movement, the concerto does not play itself, and a performance of Op. 61 can be a very long haul when an artist is not fully engaged or has little to say about the music. 

Mutter could not play in a dull fashion if she tried. In her first CSO appearance in five years, the violinist brought a characteristic blend of polished technique, gleaming silvery tone, and direct and communicative expression to Beethoven’s fiddle warhorse. Spacious tempos can be dangerous in this music, but Mutter compellingly sustained the musical narrative. The effect was an uncommonly inward and searching account of this score.

While there was estimable technical poise in the more impassioned sections, it was Mutter’s playing in lyrical passages that sealed the performance. With tender, yielding phrasing, she explored a vast range of pianissimos, playing with a hushed intimacy that made the music feel almost confessional in nature.

In the Larghetto, she brought a chaste purity, daringly drawing out the solo passages and often winnowing her sound down to a barely audible thread of shimmering violin tone. She made a quick yet graceful natural turn to the buoyant finale, where her blistering bravura set the scene for a fast and galumphing Rondo, rendered without losing an essential amiability.

González-Granados, a Marin Alsop protege, proved a worthy partner, drawing strong tuttis while keeping the orchestra down for solo passages, with only a couple passing moments when things veered slightly out of synch. Someone needs to tell the young conductor that it’s bad form to not allow a soloist to take a curtain call by herself—especially when said soloist is a musician of Mutter’s stature.

Replacing Riccardo Muti, Lina González-Granados conducted the CSO in music of Beethoven and Brahms Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

The performance of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 that concluded the evening was nearly as successful. The CSO’s music director may not have been on the podium but Thursday’s performance was very much in the vein of Muti’s Brahms—stormy, dramatic and boldly projected.

Also, as is often the case with Muti, the performance was most convincing in the outer movements. Launched with aggressive pounding timpani, González-Granados kept the drama to the fore with surging energy and emphatic tuttis. At times one wanted more incisive grip at transitions but for the most part this was worthy Brahms.

The ensuing Andante sostenuto proved less convincing. Here the young conductor’s brisk tempo made for bland results, wholly missing the relaxed rumination and affectionate warmth of the music. Only Robert Chen’s sensitive violin solos—which were nearly buried by the orchestra—rose above the routine.

Things got back on track with the third movement, which was aptly grazioso and spirited by turns. There was not a whole lot of mystery in the finale’s Adagio introduction, which failed to convey the ominous sense of a distant storm approaching. Yet the outbreak of tempestuous drama in the main section went with all due urgency and González-Granados kept things moving, handling the contrasting sections with assurance. Daniel Gingrich lofted a burnished horn solo to calm the waters, and the conductor drove the music to a fiery and majestic coda.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Posted in Performances

3 Responses to “Mutter delivers luminous Beethoven with CSO; Muti tests positive for Covid again, withdraws from concert”

  1. Posted Jun 18, 2022 at 5:37 pm by Thomas Trimborn

    The violin concerto was brilliantly performed. The Brahms however was quite disappointing – fast overall, and lacking in the dynamic contrast I have come to admire the CSO for achieving. I hopefully will someday hear a grand performance of the Brahms First Symphony.

    The CSO is a world-class ensemble, and even given the circumstances of this concert treats its audience to music-making that is absolutely sublime.

  2. Posted Jun 19, 2022 at 10:44 am by Philip Nash

    I attended the Saturday performance. Perhaps Mutter was by this time a bit jaded playing it for the third time in 3 days but it was not a performance to be remembered. Her trademark gratuitous vibrato was on full display. Nice violin though.

    Very happy with the stand-in conductor who did a good job.

  3. Posted Jun 20, 2022 at 11:30 pm by Howard C

    I was looking forward to finally see Muti and Mutter perform together but I guess it wasn’t meant to be. Despite his absence, she was marvelous this second time around (without the preoccupation of conducting at the same time) and her performance sounded like she has evolved over time. With a virtuoso performer like her, she takes the quieter and transitional moments to a whole other level which kept the audience thoroughly engaged. You can tell how much she loves this piece by how much she indulges in every moment.

    As for the guest conductor, I’m glad they were able to find somebody on short notice. I would say that the orchestra had some trouble reading her introductory downbeats and there were times when it sounded like the CSO was on autopilot.

    Lastly, Beethoven and Brahms provided the opportunity for the woodwinds and brass to display their world-class talent. It was great to hear Dan Gingrich play 1st horn solos with his golden tone. Well worth the price of admission to hear these members play.

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