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Muti finally presiding, CSO delivers Brahms Second Symphony the Asia tour didn’t get

Submitted by on Sep 20, 2013 – 2:08 pm

Birds-eye view of Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as 2013-14 season begins Sept. 19, 2013 (© Todd Rosenberg)Review: Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Muti, on Sept. 19 at Orchestra Hall. The season-opening subscription program will not be repeated.

By Lawrence B. Johnson

Photos by Todd Rosenberg

Ah, so that was the Brahms Second Symphony the Chicago Symphony Orchestra had planned to share with audiences in Asia last winter — on the tour music director Riccardo Muti had to skip because of emergency surgery. 

Music director Riccardo Muti begins 2013-14 subscription season with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Sept. 19, 2013 (© Todd Rosenberg)With stand-in conductors Osmo Vänskä and Lorin Maazel, the CSO had delivered authoritative, even commanding performances of the Brahms Second on that troubled tour. But to put it plainly, those efforts bore no relation to the exquisite account the CSO summoned Thursday night in its season opener at Orchestra Hall with Muti once again on the podium.

Of the many fine qualities that distinguished Muti’s Brahms, the most fundamental was its thoroughly vocal character. Here again was the consummate opera conductor shaping an orchestral masterwork along singing lines, indeed finding voices within the music that a listener might not have discerned in a lifetime of concert encounters.

Neither, by the same token, did Muti press tempos, but rather allowed the full expanse of Brahms’ narrative to unfold through story-telling as intimate as it was unrushed. While broadly drawn, quiescent and sparkling, the performance also bore a subliminal tension, a firmness of line sustained through sheer perfection of ensemble.

Like the string choir with its softly burnished sound, the woodwinds came to opening night in mid-season form – pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons evoking vignettes of bucolic charm throughout a work that in no small measure recalls Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony.

The CSO brasses, while matching the woodwinds in eloquence, also mustered power a-plenty when needed, notably in a fiery peroration that brought the symphony to a ripping close. That windup spoke volumes about Muti’s entire concept of the Brahms Second: Without ever becoming brash or blaring, it was magnetic, indeed electric.

Riccardo Muti conducts Brahms Symphony No. 2 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Sept.19-2013 © Todd RosenbergMuti served the first half of this season-kickoff repast on small plates, starting with the Overture to Johann Strauss Jr.’s first (and long-forgotten) operetta “Indigo and the Forty Thieves.” From the first elongated flourish of French horns that stamp this as music by the composer of “The Blue Danube” waltz, Muti and company offered a sunny, rhythmically indulgent performance – an elegant reminder that in such musical Schlagobers, style is all.

In the next weeks, Muti will lead the CSO in two major productions honoring the Verdi bicentennial: the opera “Macbeth” and the “Requiem.” As something of a prelude to those events, the conductor complemented his Strauss with ballet music from “Macbeth” and Verdi’s Overture to “La forza del destino.”

The latter work, a concise masterpiece to place beside Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture No. 3 or “Egmont,” pointed up the unevenness of the “Macbeth” ballet music by comparison. Seriously as Verdi may have taken the de rigueur ballet episode for a Paris production of “Macbeth,” heard without the visual integration of dancers, its flashes of brilliance are conspicuously offset by stretches in need of corporeal enhancement.

But the “Forza del destino” Overture is another matter, and Muti deftly invoked its melding of mystery and power, from stark proclamations by brasses alone to chilling incantations by the woodwinds. When it was over, one might have wished for a curtain to rise and the opera maestro on the podium to lead on through the full melodrama in quattro atti by this Man of the Year. Happily, more Verdi is coming from Muti, and soon.

The CSO’s Brahms saga in Asia:

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