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To heavenly length of Schubert 9th Symphony, Muti and the CSO bring transcendent poetry

Submitted by on Mar 21, 2014 – 5:01 pm

Chicago Symphony music director Riccardo Muti led a concert featuring Schubert's 'Great' C major Symphony. (Todd Rosenberg)Review: Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Muti; Mitsuko Uchida, piano. At Orchestra Hall through March 22.

By Lawrence B. Johnson

Photos by Todd Rosenberg

Riccardo Muti’s season-long traversal of the complete Schubert symphonies with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has a few stops remaining, but it’s hard to imagine the musical arc rising much higher than the “Great” C major Symphony heard March 20 at Orchestra Hall. 

Robert Schumann, who discovered and championed the “Great” C major (conventionally Schubert’s Ninth Symphony in a fragment-laden numbering sequence that never has made sense), praised the “heavenly length” of this grandly conceived work whose four movements span some 50 minutes. He might have coupled that encomium with “cosmic perfection.”

Mitsuko Uchida was the soloist in Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor. (Todd Rosenberg)In an age when the vast symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler are taken in stride by orchestras and audiences alike, we can savor – indeed, revel in – the poetic inflection, the intimate and seemingly infinite musical intimacies that fill every measure and phrase of the “Great” C major from its opening horn calls to its glorious consummation for full orchestra.

And that pretty well sums up what the CSO’s music director brought to this performance.  It was the Schubert Ninth revealed in all its drama, lyricism, spontaneity and, not least, brilliance.

The first striking impression, actually, was not auditory at all but rather visual: the prospect of a classically proportioned ensemble that might have been ready to play earlier Schubert – say, the genteel Symphony No. 5 in B-flat, with which Muti will conclude his Schubert survey on a June program with Mahler’s majestic First Symphony. Had Schubert lived to hear his valedictory symphony, it would have been from an orchestra of this scale – the sort of band known to Mozart and Beethoven as well.

That said, Schubert well may not have heard any of his symphonies played with the precision, agility, subtlety and power displayed by the CSO on this occasion. Over the long narrative arcs of the first and last movements, Muti drew episodes of the most fragile weave thrown into high contrast with banners of sound. Strings that murmured near the threshold of audibility one moment turned stentorian the next; woodwinds and brasses waxed from softly-voiced reflection to joyous proclamation.

But the heart of this performance was the soul of the “Great” C major – the tragic ballade that forms its second movement. Here Muti’s operatic mastery literally told the tale, as he indulged the music’s initial carefree bearing only to reconfigure it as high-intensity drama resolved in shadows and sorrow. It was like hearing Schubert’s song-cycle “Die schöne Müllerin” distilled into pure spirit.

Conductor Riccardo Muti and pianist Mitsuko Uchida were mutually appreciative after the Schumann Piano Concerto. (Todd Rosenberg)How fitting that music of Schumann, the Piano Concerto in A minor, should preface Schubert’s sweeping symphony. Pianist Mitsuko Uchida delivered a performance that was no less heroic than songful, and the wisdom of her extraordinary career told in playing that melded unforced charm with power aplenty.

Yet the pianist strayed technically here and there, starting with a misstep in the opening phrase that seemed to haunt the remainder of the performance for the orchestra as well as the soloist. Even as Uchida created waves of exhilarating effects and streams of heart-stopping lyricism, the CSO strings never quite achieved their wonted edge and brio. There was a shadow on this affair that bespoke something other than A minor.

The Schubert Ninth came to be known as the “Great” C major as a shorthand way to distinguish it from his more modestly scaled Sixth Symphony, which is also in C major. Muti will pair the Sixth with Schubert’s Symphony No. 1 in CSO concerts June 12-17. The conductor’s next Schubert installment will be the “Unfinished” (Symphony No. 8 in B minor) with Symphony No. 2 the weekend of March 27-29.

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