Riccardo Muti sets personal seal on Schubert with CSO’s agile turn through 2 symphonies
Review: Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Muti; John Sharp, cello. At Orchestra Hall through March 29.
By Nancy Malitz
At the end of an exhilarating Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert, the third installment of music director Riccardo Muti’s season-long traversal of the Schubert symphonies, the maestro walked to the lip of the stage with a slightly self-deprecating smile. Referring to the Viennese composer’s Symphony No. 2, which the listeners had been vigorously applauding, Muti drolly remarked that they had doubtless noticed its “Italianate influence.”
Ripples of laughter ensued. Muti is an indefatiguable enthusiast on the subject of all things Italian, and he and they have been through this banter before. But it is also Muti’s customary, and thoroughly disarming, habit to use such humor to make his point. Others may think they hear a precursor of late romantic sweep in Schubert’s 1815 symphony, he said, mimicking the momentous gestures of a conductor who eats too many potatoes. But when Muti conducts this Schubert, he hears the influence of Salieri and Rossini.
One might note other influences, but the sunny brilliance of the first and last movements of Schubert’s Second Symphony, written when the composer was only 18, was indeed as Muti said. We were in the world of Rossini’s overture to “The Barber of Seville.” Propelled by sprung rhythms that imparted a dizzying sense of forward tumble, these movements offered prolonged build-ups in which repetition was a hardly a problem but, rather, to the delicious purpose.
Sequence upon sequence added novel twists and turns, punctuated by periodic stops in the action that brought everything back to a whisper. And then the cycle would rev up all over again, an insistent crescendo of riotous string passage-work, heady woodwind flourishes and sparkling cameos for just about every orchestral section and soloist. Few orchestras are capable of such extraordinary speed and finesse, but Muti didn’t ask for anything the CSO couldn’t deliver.
A CSO concert’s greatest surprises often come in Muti’s readings of frequently performed works that listeners think they know. One could feel the audience snap to attention as Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 in B minor, the “Unfinished,” commenced at the concert’s outset. Muti was indulging the opening, an uneasy fragment of pianissimo reverie in the cellos and basses, with a prolonged, brooding separateness freed of any constraining meter.
The moment was straight out of theater, an almost operatic setting of the scene, as it were, for a performance in which troubling realizations would intrude upon passages of songlike grace. (This listener was put in mind of King Philip’s “Ella giammai m’amò” from Verdi’s “Don Carlo.”) Wherever Muti got his inspiration, it had the effect of putting the phrase into play as a narrative component, and it returned later, even softer still, with hair-raising impact. Throughout the rest of the piece, Muti singled out the elegiac elements — sighing counter-motives, the organ-like quality of the woodwind and brass choir, the ethereal singing of the violins. Of course he also had the gift of outstanding solo winds, including oboist Eugene Izotov and flutist Mathieu Dufour, who floated gossamer threads of melody that were quite out of this world, even for them.
The program included a nice complement to all the Schubert — Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto, with John Sharp, the orchestra’s principal cellist. A grand, late-romantic work, suffused with heartbreak, the concerto was written in 1919, toward the end of Elgar’s active compositional life. Despite its big bones and ambitious technical demands, it is a deeply personal work. Sharp has an exceptional lyric sensibility and a flawless technique well-suited for the purpose. On the high A-string of his Guarnerius, he produces an exquisite, silky sound.
Less extroverted than the typical soloist, Sharp seemed more comfortable communing with the maestro than he was eager to turn his gaze up into the crowd or to employ the standard exaggerated vocabulary of gesture that soloists use to focus listeners’ attention. A veteran principal orchestral player who has clocked tens of thousands of hours giving conductors exactly what they want, and who normally masterminds the cello blend from his chair at the head of the section, Sharp was being asked to play somewhat against type. But his impeccable musicianship clearly connected with the Thursday audience, who embraced him as family and awarded him with instantaneous and extended applause.
- Muti’s season-long Schubert exploration concludes in June: Information at cso.org
- Review of the Great C Major Symphony: Go to ChicagoOntheAisle.com