Famed virtuoso pianists of different generations are passing through the hallowed halls of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra this week, giving the box office a jolt of starpower beyond what Riccardo Muti already has been providing.
While we can only imagine what a collaboration by Evgeny Kissin, Muti and the CSO would be like, we have the consolation prize of the Russian pianist's bringing a recital program of Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and Liszt to Symphony Center on Sunday afternoon.
And the third and final program of Muti's spring residency with the CSO, first presented on Thursday night, brought the welcome return of the music director's distinguished Italian countryman, Maurizio Pollini, who gave an absorbing account of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 in C, K.467.
Mozart and Pollini is not a musical coupling that comes to mind as readily as, say, Chopin and Pollini or Beethoven and Pollini. But in fact the pianist has in recent years been going the route of such colleagues as Daniel Barenboim and Mitsuko Uchida, directing Mozart concertos from the keyboard. From the evidence of his DG recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic, this approach has brought both pluses and minuses, a lack of dramatic contrast between the solo part and the accompaniment being one of the minuses.
There was no such problem on Thursday. Muti matched the aristocratic grace of his soloist with plentiful refinements of his own. The songful contributions of the principal flute, oboe and bassoon meshed beautifully with Pollini's supple phrasing, while Muti's light touch and sensitive balancing kept textures airy despite his use of a fuller than normal complement of strings.
The soloist's deep musical understanding, burnished tone and immaculate finger work – achieved on the mellow-toned Hamburg Steinway-Fabbrini piano that always travels with him – were, as always, much in evidence. So was a fair amount of grunting and singing along with himself, as if the great Italian pianist were channeling Glenn Gould. Since Mozart left no cadenzas, Pollini played ones by his friend, the composer Salvatore Sciarrino, and very stylish they were too.
The celebrated "Elvira Madigan" slow movement refuted the charge often leveled at Pollini that his playing can be clinical and emotionally detached: His sensitive shaping of the long cantabile conversation with the orchestra was anything but icy. Pacing rather more relaxed than his presto sprint through the finale surely would have brought out more of the movement's opera buffa charm and wit, which in any case were dampened by a brief but shocking (for this pianist) slip of the fingers.
Robert Schumann is another composer about whose music Muti has strong personal feelings. Chicago audiences had scant evidence of those feelings before Thursday's full-blooded reading of Schumann's Symphony No. 3 ("Rhenish").
Such was the warmly idiomatic feeling the Neapolitan maestro brought to this Romantic staple that you might have mistaken him for a son of the Rhineland rather than a child of the southern Italian soil. Yes, a few entrances could have been cleaner, but Schumann's voice emerged with piercing clarity and the orchestra's response to Muti's controlled but flexible baton could not have been heartier. The five horns gave their all, which made for a magnificent-sounding brass chorale.
Earlier in the program, Muti offered a contrasting pair of not-often-heard German overtures, Beethoven's "Consecration of the House" and Mendelssohn's "Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage." Each overture moves from a measured first section to a triumphant peroration – in the case of the Beethoven, a grand double fugue. Both pieces were splendidly done, especially the Mendelssohn, a virtual tone poem that clearly holds a special appeal for Muti. The three trumpeters and timpanist well deserved their solo bows.
Audience members who are wondering about that unfamiliar face in the second violin section should know it belongs to Sylvia Kim Kilcullen. She has just been promoted from the position of section violinist, a post she has held since September, to that of assistant principal second violin. A former member of the Pittsburgh Symphony, she replaced Albert Igolnikov following his retirement last year.
The program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; $40-$270 (limited availability); 312-294-3000, cso.org.
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