Muti and the CSO mark Mahler’s passing with retro Italian program
For the third and final week of his fall residency with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Riccardo Muti offered a historic program that marked the centennial year of Gustav Mahler’s death and also provided a fascinating sampler of some of Muti’s neglected compatriot composers.
While the Italian conductor himself does not conduct Mahler’s music–a first among CSO music directors–Muti clearly has great respect for the Austrian composer, as much for Mahler’s podium accomplishments and championing of modern music as for his compositions.
This week’s CSO program observes the centennial year of Mahler’s death by recreating the program of his final concert. Against the advice of his doctor, Mahler led the New York Philharmonic in an “Italian night” on February 21, 1911 that showcased several contemporary composers. Less than three months later, the composer would die of heart disease at age 51.
Historic considerations apart, what looked on paper like something of a slender hodgepodge wound up being one of Muti’s best played and most sheerly enjoyable concerts to date. The conductor was at his most engaging, offering witty and informed introductions, and confessing he was surprised to learn that every work on the program had been previously performed by the CSO (though most of the obscurities had not been heard for many years).
Not only was Thursday’s concert noteworthy for the characteristic polish and brio of the performances but its also served to illuminate how much orchestral programming has changed over the past century, with a symphony on the first half, a concerto on the second and two shorter works to conclude the evening. As the conductor said to the audience, “If I did a program like this today, you and the critics would say, ‘Muti is mad!’”
Leone Sinigaglia’s Overture to Le baruffe chiozzotte is a decided curio today but the buoyant curtain-raiser was quite popular in its time (Frederick Stock performed it with the CSO just one year after its debut). Operetta-like in its tuneful vivaciousness, Muti and the orchestra served up a fizzing and exuberant performance.
Mendelssohn’s Italian symphony (No. 4) made Mahler’s program less by geographic origin than Mediterranean color and popularity. Unsurprisingly, Muti led a terrific performance—fleet, incisive, highly polished, and generous with repeats. The Andante was especially fine, with Muti bringing a transparency and wide range of dynamic nuance to the pilgrims’ procession.
Most attention focused on the largest work on the program, Giuseppe Martucci’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Unlike most 19th-century Italian musicians, Martucci was not interested in opera. The pianist-turned-composer and conductor wrote four symphonies, two piano concertos, a great deal of chamber music and innumerable keyboard works.
Martucci was a popular figure in the late 19th and early 20th century but his music has now largely fallen into oblivion. That’s unfortunate since the best of his music–the symphonies in particular–merit more attention than they currently receive.
As one of the leading keyboard virtuosos of his day, Martucci wrote his Piano Concerto No. 2 for his own use, but the work was soon picked up by other artists who dared to tackle the knuckle-busting complexities. (The concerto was performed only once by the CSO in 1913 with Silvio Scionti as soloist and Stock on the podium.)
Spanning 45 minutes, Martucci’s concerto is cast on the grand scale with its intensely demanding solo part, long-lined melodies and lush orchestration imbibing all the elements of a big Late Romantic concerto. What it lacks is the melodic indelibility and distinctive individual stamp to take it out of the second tier. The concerto at times sounds like a pallid echo of Brahms and a pre-echo of Rachmaninoff.
Martucci’s concerto may not be a masterpiece, but soloist Gerhard Oppitz played it as if it were one. Unlike Michele Campanella’s uneven Liszt outing last week, Oppitz displayed an iron-fingered technique and brought daunting power as well as the requisite romantic sensibility to this music, easing into the lyrical moments and bringing fleet bravura to the scherzo-like finale. Muti and the orchestra provided equally high-powered and flexible support. Why has it taken so long for this wonderful pianist to make his CSO debut? Let’s have Oppitz back in Chicago soon.
The brilliant and forward-looking pianist-composer Ferruccio Busoni wrote his Berceuse elegiaque in 1909 following the death of his mother. The slight astringency of Busoni’s progressive tonality adds an apt asperity to this heartfelt work, and Muti and the CSO distilled the work’s sense of loss and solace with great sensitivity, the hushed glow of the coda most beautifully done.
Like Sinigaglia, the music of Marco Enrico Bossi has likewise been shot out of the canon over the past century. His Intermezzi Goldoni for strings was a hit in its day, and, while no great depths are plumbed in this suite of 18th-century dance melodies, the music is neatly varied and smartly written.
In a concession to a program that ran well over the standard two hours, Muti omitted two of the six sections led by Mahler in 1911, but the four that remained gave sufficient taste of Bossi’s lightish music. Muti and the CSO winningly brought out the virtuosic bravura of the violin writing as well as the graceful nostalgic charm.
The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8:30 p.m. Saturday. cso.org; 312-294-3000.