Every so often Riccardo Muti likes to remind the local concert public that his Chicago Symphony Orchestra isn't just a superb instrument for the big Romantic, late Romantic and 20th century repertory. It plays Classical-era works with the same dedication, proficiency and, you might say, pride of ownership. The program of Mozart and Beethoven symphonies the maestro conducted Thursday night at Symphony Center served as another of those reminders.
It's been an eventful week for the music director. Muti dedicated his fourth and final sold-out performance of Bach's B minor Mass on Tuesday night to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, asking the audience to stand and observe a moment of silence in their memory. The following evening he was guest of honor at a gala hosted by Chicago's Italian American Chamber of Commerce, which presented him with its lifetime achievement award – yet another honor the maestro can add to his groaning shelf.
Thursday night's concert was, however, all about the music.
Muti's pairing of Mozart's Symphony No. 38 ("Prague") and Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 probably wasn't designed to show how much the former masterpiece has in common with the latter. But his large-scale treatment of the "Prague" Symphony all but removed it from the Classical realm and relocated it within hailing distance of early middle-period Beethoven.
Muti developed his Mozart style in the course of his close, 40-odd-year association with the Vienna Philharmonic, and his Mozart opera and symphony recordings with that orchestra show how strongly and personally he approaches the composer's music. In fact, the suavity of phrasing and sweet, singing tone he drew from the CSO made you think you were hearing the fabled philharmonic in Vienna's Musikverein, minus the lustrous acoustics of that storied concert hall.
This was quite a distance from the tougher, leaner Mozart style favored by today's authenticity brigade. But the high intelligence, not to mention elegance and wit, Muti brought to his reading won me over, and, I suspect, most other audience members as well.
He treated the "Prague" rather like a Mozart opera without words. The dramatic emphasis given the twisting chromatic scales and ominous rumbles of bass and drums in the Adagio introduction to the first movement called to mind "Don Giovanni." And because Muti observed every repeat, even in the second halves of the outer movements, his Mozart clocked in well beyond the 30-minute mark. This was Mozart banging on the door of the early 19th century.
Such was the care with which Muti balanced textures that thickness and heaviness were avoided. Relaxed pacing of the slow movement allowed the intersecting woodwind lines to emerge clearly, while the cultivated conversation of flutist Mathieu Dufour and oboist Eugene Izotov added to the pleasures of the finale.
After intermission, Muti offered a Beethoven Fourth notable for bumptious wit, molded contours and eruptive energy. Once again his holding back in the Adagio introduction to the opening movement built suspense for what was to come. The Adagio was particularly notable for its shapely cantabile phrasing. Muti made much of dynamic contrasts, crouching low to get the effects he was after. The weight of sound he got from the CSO was appropriate to his interpretation. In all, a very enjoyable performance, beautifully played.
The program's opening work brought a sentimental blast from the past. Antonio Vivaldi's little Concerto in A major for strings and continuo (R.158) was the very first piece on the very first program Muti ever conducted with the CSO downtown. That was back in March 1975, at the height of the orchestra's fame under Georg Solti. Who at the time could have imagined the Italian firebrand would inherit the Hungarian dynamo's throne 35 years later?
In any case, Muti warmed the contours of this eight-minute string concerto to lively and charming effect. Once again there were countless departures from current views of "correct" Baroque performance practice. So what? The important thing was that Muti and his 20 string players sounded fully engaged, everyone enjoying himself and herself. This was as close as we'll probably ever get to hearing Muti as a chamber musician.
The program will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; $31-$239; 312-294-3000, cso.org.
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