La Scena Musicale

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Muti in Chicago (second in a series of three articles)


Photo of Maestro Riccardo Muti conducting the CSO by Todd Rosenberg

Schubert: Symphony No. 5 in B flat major D. 485 (1816)
Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D major

Chicago Symphony/Riccardo Muti

Orchestra Hall, Chicago
Thursday, June 19, 2014

Since the days of Sir Georg Solti – music director 1969-1992 – the Chicago Symphony has been known as a great Mahler orchestra. But it is astonishing to look into the archives and see just how often his music has been played and recorded. The Symphony No. 1 is a particular favorite. It has been recorded no fewer than seven times by Solti, Giulini, Abbado, Tennstedt, Boulez and Haitink. And this list is a veritable who’s who of most of the leading Mahler conductors of the past 50 years. And now comes the current music director, Riccardo Muti, a conductor renowned for his Verdi but not for his Mahler. To my knowledge, he has only conducted two of the ten symphonies in his entire career. This week he conducted the Mahler First in Chicago for the first time. How would he compare with the giants of the past who have stood on the same podium and conducted the same music? Forget the comparisons. This was perhaps the finest live performance of the piece I have ever heard.

The tempo Muti chose to begin the first movement was daringly slow but absolutely ideal for capturing the sounds of nature Mahler had embedded in his score. Against a background of barely audible string harmonics the bird calls each had a special character. The offstage trumpets sounded far, far away, just what Mahler must have imagined. The effect was magical. I suspect that this perfection of balance was achieved only by trial and error and by Muti’s insistence on getting it right. Years ago CSO principal trombonist Jay Friedman wrote that “no one, in my experience, has yet captured the stillness (Mahler’s word) of the opening pages.” (1993) I have no idea what Mr. Friedman thought of the opening pages in this performance but for me it felt just right.

Gradually, the music unfolded organically and almost imperceptibly took on a tempo that began to move the music forward.

The second movement scherzo managed to be heavy-footed and playful at the same time, and the eight horns lined across the stage made a glorious sound.
The third movement funeral march was profoundly beautiful from the opening bars. Muti set the tempo for the timpani (David Herbert) then hardly conducted at all until the end of the double bass solo. And what playing in the solo! Alexander Hanna, in only his second season with the CSO, played with enormous authority and beauty of sound. At the end of the performance Muti made a special point of walking into the orchestra to shake Mr. Hanna’s hand. He deserved it.

There has been some confusion over the years about whether this solo should be played by one player or the entire section. Sander Wilkens published a book in 1992 in which he argued that Mahler’s preference was for the entire section to play it. Muti did some research on the subject that included the examination of scores used for the first performance and early reviews. He concluded that there was no doubt that Mahler wanted just a single player.

The last movement of the symphony is the longest and contains a vast range of emotion and dynamics. Muti and the CSO got to the heart of the matter time and again with perfectly-gauged crescendi, hair-trigger precision from trumpets and trombones, and a stunning range of colors and dynamics from the percussion. It was overwhelming.

I must confess that in the past I have often been disappointed by the acoustics of Orchestra Hall. Too often this great orchestra has been seen but not heard. Softer passages had no substance, upper strings were frequently hard-edged and in full cry the orchestra often sounded flat when it should be three-dimensional. But not on this night. From my seat in row G on the right side of the lower balcony I was amazed at the warmth and clarity of the timbre of each instrument, and the transparency even in the loudest passages. I had two recurring thoughts as the performance unfolded: Mahler would have loved it, and members of the audience, hearing an orchestra live for the first time, must have been thrilled by the experience.

Each member of the orchestra rose to the occasion. Christopher Martin leading the trumpet section proved a worthy successor to the late Adoph Herseth. Leading the enlarged horn section, Daniel Gingrich was especially good in the softer solo passages. It is rumored that principal flute Mathieu Dufour recently won an audition to become principal flute of the Berlin Philharmonic. That would be a great loss for the CSO. In both concerts I heard, he was wonderful.

Before intermission Muti and the CSO concluded their Schubert Symphony Cycle with the charming Symphony No. 5. Once again, Muti showed that in matters Schubertian there is a lot to be said for the Viennese style. Sing these great tunes with love and warmth and the music almost plays itself. But beneath the surface of the apparent naiveté of the music there is more to it than that. Schubert songs are at first appearance strophic in form and within the technical grasp of many amateurs, but great artistry is required to really capture their essence.

Muti’s affinity for Schubert came out in the way he handled the slow movement. It can easily become tiresome if the tempo is too slow. The music is achingly beautiful but it doesn’t get more beautiful by playing it slower. Its true character is only revealed when the music moves forward. However, toward the end of the movement Schubert introduces several mood-changing colors that are often missed if a conductor maintains too quick a tempo all the way to the end. Muti’s insight was to slow up just a little in these final pages so that the touch of melancholy could register.  

In my last article in the series “Muti in Chicago”, I will report on a fascinating session between Riccardo Muti and the 30+ members of the Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA) in town to attend their annual meeting. Muti was very generous with his time and with his thoughts about life and music. He expounded at length on what matters most to him – Italian opera and using music to bring people together – and also revealed an earthy sense of humor. Approaching the age of 73 Riccardo Muti is one of the greatest conductors alive and a lively and compelling interlocutor.


Paul Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. For friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, “Classical Airs.”

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