The Wagnerian past is prologue with Muti’s compelling CSO program

June 14, 2013

Riccardo Muti conducts the CSO in music of Wagner Thursday night at Symphony Center. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

For his penultimate Chicago Symphony Orchestra week of the season, Riccardo Muti has fashioned a generous and offbeat Austro-German program, beginning with Wagner’s end of the gods and ending with the beginning of Anton Bruckner, Wagner’s most devoted composer colleague.

“Siegfried’s Death” was a prose sketch Wagner wrote for the Ring cycle, which would later take musical shape as Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and Funeral Music, the orchestral passage in Götterdämmerung that accompanies the demise of Wagner’s hero and marks the coda of the four-opera, 17-hour cycle.

Thursday’s Wagner performance didn’t get off to a memorable start with divers rude and/or clueless audience members contributing obbligato coughs, audible conversations, rustling candy bags and musical cell phones belatedly being shut off. Is this Chicago or Arkansas?

Muti’s extremely slow tempo for the opening bars flirted with stasis, but his patient direction built the Götterdämmerung postlude with great skill. Siegfried’s heroic theme burst forth with bristling energy and youthful swagger, followed by brilliant brass attacks in the ensuing funeral march, and elegiac, evocative playing by the Wagner tubas as the dead hero’s bier passes down the Rhine.

In addition to Muti’s organic conducting, it was wonderful to revel in the tonal refinement of the CSO as well as the sheer sonic spectacle of a Brobdingnagian Wagner orchestra cutting loose in the concert hall. It’s not every day one gets to hear an orchestra of these dimensions—including six harps—and the effect was stirring and resplendent.

His first encounter with Wagner’s music changed Anton Bruckner’s life and spurred him to discover his own creative voice in the symphony with soaring sonic cathedrals in which the Austrian countryside and a spiritual lyricism freely mingle. Bruckner dedicated his Third Symphony to his idol who was polite yet dubious (“Very nice,” Wagner said to Bruckner after being presented with the score.)

At just 48 minutes, Bruckner’s Symphony No. 1 is a model of Webernian concision compared to his sprawling later works in the genre. Bruckner referred to the First as “das kecke Beserl” (roughly, “the saucy little vixen”), though his affection for this early effort didn’t prevent the famously insecure composer from substantially revising the score in later years to its detriment.

Muti wisely opted for Bruckner’s original 1866 Linz version, which retains the quirkiness and elements that were in part lost with the composer’s later smoothing away of the rough edges that make the work distinctive.

Still, at times you find yourself wondering “Is this good music or bad music?” In the finale in particular Bruckner seems so anxious to share his ideas, which tumble out fast and in such profusion, that the effect is bewildering— unrepeated passages, sudden rests, and quicksilver running violin figures that seem disconnected to anything else going on in the orchestra.

Much like the composer himself apparently, there’s a certain gauche awkwardness in the First Symphony allied to its rustic charm and majestic moments that make the very strangeness ebullient and endearing.

For those who came of age hearing Sir Georg Solti’s Bruckner performances with the CSO, Muti’s style in this repertory is a full 180. The Hungarian conductor’s Bruckner was tense and aggressive with cataclysmic—and often strident—brass climaxes. Muti, on the other hand, conducts Bruckner like it’s Haydn—-light, dancing, flexible yet rhythmically centered.

Rarely will one hear the charm of early Bruckner come across as winningly as in Thursday’s performance of the First Symphony. The brilliant climaxes were there, with ample power and keen precision, but the peaks were kept in scale, the refined brass providing vinegar to textures without blaring or becoming overbearing.

While the ebb and flow of the outer movements were shaped by Muti with understanding and sensitivity, the middle movements proved especially fine. The easy flowing touch in the Adagio brought forth a natural lyric eloquence and the scherzo’s rhythmic insistence was neatly contrasted with the pastoral lilt of the trio. The CSO contributed some of their finest playing of the season in this Bruckner outing with especially gleaming brass and elegant violins.

The evening’s well-chosen centerpiece was Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, a work in which the Classical and Romantic elements vie before finding common ground.

Leif Ove Andsnes canceled his scheduled appearances with the CSO this week due to the early arrival of his twins. Replacing the Norwegian pianist was Rudolf Buchbinder, who last appeared with the CSO at Ravinia in 1977, here making his belated downtown debut.

While a solid enough reading, this was not the most probing or individual Beethoven performance one is ever likely to hear. The first movement in particular sounded efficient but lacked dynamic nuance and expressive poise, and the dialogue between gentle piano notes and domineering string statements in the Andante was wanting in drama and contrast.

Still, Buchbinder has clearly kept his technique in impressive repair, and, with fine support by Muti and the orchestra, the Austrian pianist’s polished articulation and sturdy musicianship made for a worthy performance. Buchbinder opted for Beethoven’s original cadenza in the first movement, throwing it off with striking speed and fire, though not enough to convince one that the overlong and emptily showy solo should be performed more often.

Buchbinder received a resounding ovation and the 66-year-old pianist looked genuinely touched, as much by performing with Muti and the CSO as by the applause, as he graciously shared the curtain calls with the conductor and orchestra.

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

Note: The CSO has received a $1.25 million gift from Richard and Mary L. Gray and the Gray Foundation. $250,000 will be earmarked for artistic innovation and programming while $1 million will endow the CSO’s position of vice president of artistic planning and audience development, a job held by Martha Gilmer since 1998. This is the first endowment given to a CSO administrative position.

One Response to “The Wagnerian past is prologue with Muti’s compelling CSO program”

  1. Posted Jun 14, 2013 at 3:54 pm by Dave

    A superb performance by the CSO under Maestro Muti, as your excellent review outlines. Too bad the noisy audience drowned out the quiet moments. I’m not sure if it was the same rude people who also bolted out of the hall as the last Bruckner chord was fading, or if it was maybe the rest of the people who were fed up with the rude people. A poll should be done to find out!