Muti, Chicago Symphony wrap season with resounding Mahler

June 22, 2014
Riccardo Muti led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Mahler's Symphony No. 1 Thursday night at Orchestra Hall. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Riccardo Muti led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 Thursday night at Orchestra Hall. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

There’s plenty of empty local boosterism in Chicago to go around—political, social, sports and cultural—that doesn’t necessarily comport with objective reality.

But it’s not chamber of commerce hype to say that there is no orchestra in the world that owns Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Since Frederick Stock led the first local performance in 1914, the orchestra’s corporate virtuosity, sonorous heft and stentorian brass have been sterling advocates for Mahler’s First as evidenced by six first-class recordings (from Carlo Maria Giulini to Bernard Haitink) and numerous memorable performances over the decades.

Riccardo Muti is a rarity among CSO music directors in not possessing a pronounced affinity for Mahler’s music—a bit odd considering the ensemble’s deep and historic Mahlerian bona fides. In his career, Muti has performed Mahler only selectively—some orchestral songs and the Fourth and First Symphonies, the latter recorded with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

This week’s final program of the CSO season held more than the usual interest with Muti leading the composer’s Symphony No. 1 in his first Mahler performances in Chicago. Don’t expect a complete Mahler cycle from the CSO’s music director anytime soon. But Thursday night’s thrilling and resoundingly successful performance demonstrated that Mahler may fit Muti—and vice versa—better than anyone ever thought. Maybe even the conductor himself.

Mahler is music of high emotions and extremes, in length, dynamics, material and resources. Muti’s vaunted emphasis on textual fidelity aligns with Mahler’s neurotically detailed score instructions, yet one can understand why Muti has been dubious about taking on the composer. The Italian conductor’s musical personality is more Classically centered—focused on proportion, balance, and clarity, and less akin to the kind of violent emotions and uninhibited extremes of Mahler’s turbulent musical psyche.

The composer’s epic journey in his First Symphony—from hushed nature and spring through youthful energy, disillusion, banality, tragic darkness and, ultimately, a resurgence of confident triumph—has always suited the CSO’s corporate sonority uncommonly well. In its current profile—muscular brass, flexible and characterful winds, and the strings’ silky Viennese sheen—Mahler’s music seems even more to fit the orchestra like a perfectly tailored glove.

Thursday’s performance took a while to settle in, unusual for a Muti-led event. Tuning was off in the woodwinds’ first entrance, there were fitful ensemble slips and one of the section horn players was audibly having a less-than-stellar night.

Even so, most of the playing was up to the highest local standard and this was about as compelling and exhilarating a Mahler performance as the CSO has presented in recent years. (While using the new critical edition’s orchestra parts, Muti adhered to tradition in presenting the third movement’s “Frere Jacques” theme as the traditional double-bass solo rather than the new edition’s unconvincing version for the entire bass section.)

As one might expect, Muti underlined the score’s dynamic contrasts, with the hushed opening of nature’s awakening hovering on the far edge of audibility. The long line and tension of the opening movement was unerringly held, with a majestic stealing in of the horn theme and a seamless acceleration into the exuberant coda.

The second movement scherzo went with an almost nautical jauntiness (“Under full sail!” was Mahler’s deleted original marking). Muti eased into a meltingly tender, lilting trio, which nicely echoed the Viennese associations with Schubert on the first half, and enjoyed fine contributions from clarinetist Stephen Williamson, oboist Eugene Izotov and flutist Mathieu Dufour.

With the repertory familiarity of this work, it’s difficult to make the ironic dirge of the third movement sound as weird and unsettling as it must have to Mahler’s baffled contemporaries. Muti, characteristically, played it straight, avoiding any special pleading while allowing the strangeness to speak for itself. What Leonard Bernstein called the “Jewish wedding music” sounded more goyishe Thursday yet made its impact, with all the varied episodes resonating as a flowing dreamlike procession of sonic images. Alexander Hanna’s refined, subtly nuanced double-bass solo underlined Muti’s Viennese approach to Mahler—more Bruno Walter than Bernstein. The delicate string theme led by harp descants, was beguilingly rendered, as were the coda’s acutely graded pianissimos.

With the explosive fury of the finale’s opening flourish, this Mahler performance really came into its own. Muti ratcheted up the excitement with each iteration, while pointing the alternating string episodes with the requisite nostalgic ache. The inexorable buildup to the final bars was thrilling and relentless, the two sets of timpanis roaring and trumpets and trombones joining the eight horns to stand, per Mahler’s request, for the triumphant final peroration.

The cheers and ovations were instant and tumultuous. Muti walked through the orchestra to first acknowledge and shake hands with Hanna for his fine solo, followed by individual bows for the principals and sections.

This season’s Schubert series has been consistently rewarding. The final installment, the Symphony No. 5, opened the evening and provided the highlight of Muti’s complete cycle.

The performance exhibited the fleet tempos and graceful balancing of poised classicism with Schubert’s melodic indelibility. Yet Muti took a more relaxed approach in this predominantly cheerful work to the music’s benefit. If some previous Schubert outings were more briskly incisive and light on Viennese charm, this Fifth proved more affectionate and warmly moulded by Muti yet with the period and music kept in proper scale.

The Andante was especially fine, flowing yet with an underpinning of lyric warmth, Muti’s extra degree of slowing for the middle section finding a somber note. The performance was rounded off with a vivacious Allegro boasting ample energy without sacrificing an essential airy grace. One sharp horn note in the third movement apart, the musicians performed with customary polish and tonal refinement, Dufour’s bucolic flute leading the echt-Viennese winds.

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