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Opera stage resounds in Bach’s Mass as Muti brings personal authenticity to CSO account

Submitted by on Apr 13, 2013 – 2:08 pm

Review: Bach’s Mass in B Minor, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, soloists conducted by Riccardo Muti, through April 16 ★★★★★

By Lawrence B. Johnson

Concert photos by Todd Rosenberg

The decidedly Italianate, essentially operatic treatment of Bach’s Mass in B Minor offered this weekend by conductor Riccardo Muti and forces of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra may have little to do with the elusive question of Baroque performance practice, but it has everything to do with spiritual authenticity, conceptual integrity and musical wisdom.

Muti’s approach to Bach’s monumental Mass is at once measured and serious, luminous and ethereal. From a chamber-size orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Chorus — beautifully prepared by director Duain Wolfe — and four splendid solo singers, the conductor draws a magisterial account of Bach’s profoundly human testament of religious faith. The performance I heard on April 11 left little to wish for – albeit within a musical framework that might have been more readily comprehended by Verdi than by Bach.

That said, Bach no doubt would be delighted to hear so loving an expression of the Mass in B Minor, which he never heard in its entirety before his death in 1750. The work, or anyway the elements of the work, occupied him for much of his life. A goodly chunk of it – the already formidable Kyrie and Gloria – were written early, with other sections added over a period of some 25 or 30 years. In its totality, the Mass represents a compendium of Bach’s compositional mastery, incorporating as it does rigorous flights of counterpoint, exquisite writing for the voice and sequential movements that add up to concerto form.

Indeed, finely crafted instrumental embroidery contributes much to the sublime character — and human resonance — of aria after aria, and CSO principal players matched the singers in eloquent partnerships. Four famous instrumental accompaniments within the Gloria alone afforded a thrilling series of such match-ups.

The dark luster that mezzo-soprano Anna Malavasi brought to the “Laudamus te” and “Qui sedes am dextram Patis” was set off by the supple playing of violinist Robert Chen and the oboe d’amore of Eugene Izotov. The gentle duet “Domine Deus,” by soprano Eleonora Buratto and tenor Saimir Pirgu, was attended by caressing lines from flutist Mathieu Dufour, and bass-baritone Adam Plachetka’s ringing “Quoniam tu solus sanctus” enjoyed fluent trio support by French horn player Daniel Gingrich with bassoonists David McGill and Dennis Michel.

What made each of these collaborations, and others, so special was their shared quality of lyrical warmth. And that precisely was the ruling aspect of the entire enterprise under Muti’s care. Here was the maestro dell’opera conveying the personal expressivity of the stage to the transcendent spiritualism of Bach’s Mass. That sensibility permeated the choral singing as well, from broadly contoured sections like the “Kyrie” and “Qui tollis peccata mundi” to the eruptive, trumpet-laden jubilation of “Gloria in excelsis Deo” and “Et resurrexit.”

Besides those Baroque sunbursts, Muti also created a vivacious  “concerto” segment in the “Sanctus,” with the two “Osanna” movements – brilliant, bouncing rhythms fired with urgent life by the chorus – framing tenor Saimir Pirgu’s prayerful “Benedictus” to flutist Mathieu Dufour’s languid accompaniment. Here, as everywhere in this two hours of music, the CSO’s small string choir played with a radiance equal to its technical finesse.

Underpinning and animating it all — witness to Muti’s actual Baroque consciousness — was the adroit continuo ensemble of cellist John Sharp, bassist Alexander Hanna, organist David Schrader and harpsichordist Mark Schuldiner.

The complete Mass in B Minor contains 27 numbered sections: In just the ways I’ve cited, yet with still greater variety, empathy and imagination, Muti made distinctive musical moments of every last one. Authentic? The apt word is transformational.

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Photo captions and credits: Home page: Chicago Symphony Orchestra Music Director Riccardo Muti (center) acknowledges applause after performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor with, from left, mezzo-soprano Anna Malavasi, soprano Eleonora Buratto, tenor Saimir Pirgu and bass-baritone Adam Plachetka. Top: CSO choral director Duain Wolfe, left, shares applause with conductor Riccardo Muti, center, and the soloists. Descending: Riccardo Muti leads the performance. Below: Bird’s-eye view of Orchestra Hall during performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor. (Photos by Todd Rosenberg) 


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