After sedate start, Muti’s Bach eventually reaches the summit
Muti’s back with Bach.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s music director returned to the CSO podium Thursday night for the first of three weeks of his April residency. In his first Chicago appearance since last September—having bowed out of his January concerts and the orchestra’s Asian tour due to a hernia operation—Riccardo Muti looked fit and in command, leading the CSO, Chorus and soloists in Bach’s mighty Mass in B minor.
Muti is at his best in large-scale choral works—not least the Verdi Requiem as demonstrated by the searing, Grammy-winning CSO recording by Muti and the orchestra. Yet the Italian conductor is less known for Baroque music, with Thursday’s Bach mass marking his first Chicago foray into early 18th-century music.
As in other repertoire, Muti proved his own man in this cornerstone spiritual work, as was made clear by the forces employed. Eschewing the modern tendency to perform Bach with modest orchestra and and small chorus, Muti elected to go with Bach on the grand scale with large string sections and a full 86-member CSO Chorus.
Still even with the expanded forces, Muti consistently drew a refined and highly focused sonority. Balancing was remarkable even by his usual standard with the huge chorus, vocal soloists, orchestra and obbligato instrumental solos wielded with striking transparency.
As a spiritual man, Muti clearly holds this score—a founding cornerstone of Western music—in high regard. Yet there’s a fine line between reverence and ponderousness and, for all the superb playing and worthy vocalism, Thursday’s performance took a considerable time to get out of the gate.
Even though skillfully sustained, Muti’s tempos—particularly in the leaden opening Kyrie—-were so slow in the first half of the evening that the music-making often felt anachronistic. If trying to mark a firm distinction between the darker passages and the moments of spiritual jubilation, the contrasts seemed far too overdrawn, slower choruses tipping over into a Romanticized 19th-century idiom.
Too often, the first half of the performance felt heavy and respectful, as if the Bach mass were something to be admired and gazed upon from a distance. Comparisons are invidious, but one couldn’t help harkening back to the performance of the Mass in B minor a fortnight ago by the Chicago Bach Project where John Nelson’s bracing tempos and vivacity consistently brought out the ingenuity and melodic richness of the music with a freshness and rhythmic lift. Muti’s direction in this music, by comparison, seemed uncharacteristically sedate and stodgy with the contrapuntal writing emerging surprisingly square at times.
Yet after intermission, the performance seemed to suddenly spark to life. Granted there is more quick and jubilant music in the latter sections, but even in the more interior music, the performance had greater grip and felt more energized with stronger momentum (transitions between sections were masterfully assayed by Muti throughout). The grand opening up at et vitam venturi saeculi, the rousing Osanna in excelsis and the triumphant affirmation of the closing Dona nobis pacem all made fine and resplendent impact.
Vocalism from both the soloists and the chorus were of the same cloth—efficient and responsive yet without much expressive engagement or individuality.
Under Duain Wolfe, the singing of the CSO Chorus was attentive, nimble and polished yet otherwise unsatisfying. Words were too often indecipherable, especially from the women’s voices, and while dynamics were alertly marked and fugal singing was fleet and agile, there was a distinct lack of feeling throughout. There was little sense of mystery in the Et incarnatus est and a decided blandness in Qui tollis peccata mundi.
So too, the quartet of soloists were solid without evincing much distinction. Eleonora Buratto sang with a clear if decidedly light soprano. Anna Malavasi has a smoky Maddalena-like Italianate mezzo, yet her singing was literal and detached with a short-breathed Laudamus te and a baffling lack of feeling in the Agnus Dei.
The men fared better. Like most tenors, Saimir Pirgu was stretched in the high tessitura of the Benedictus yet otherwise sang gracefully. After an unwieldy Quoniam tu solus sanctus, bass-baritone Adam Plachetka arighted the balance with a sensitively rendered Et in Spiritum sanctum Dominum.
The playing of the orchestra was superb and responsive thoughout, though trumpeter Christopher Martin had an atypically uneven night.
The most consistent element of the evening was the first-class obbligato contributions by orchestra principals. The playing of hornist Daniel Gingrich, concertmaster Robert Chen, bassoonist David McGill, and, especially flutist Mathieu Dufour and oboes d’amore Eugene Izotov and Scott Hostetler lifted a mixed evening out of the ordinary. Cellist John Sharp, bass Alexander Hanna, organist David Schrader and harpsichordist Mark Shuldiner made up the steady and cohesive continuo group.
Bach’s Mass in B minor will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 7:30 p.m Tuesday. cso.org; 312-294-3000.