A Riccardo Muti residency at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is never entirely about making music. In this second of three season-ending weeks, for example, the music director has gone from directing a Verdi chorus at a riverfront park in Chinatown, to fielding questions from subscribers at a public Q&A. On Saturday he is to deliver the commencement address for the DePaul University School of Music which is awarding him an honorary doctorate.
But it was back to job one on Thursday night in a conspicuously packed Orchestra Hall, where listeners were reminded that this greatest living conductor of Italian opera is also a distinguished interpreter of the German and Austrian symphonic repertory that is the musical bedrock of the CSO.
Muti led off with music of Richard Wagner, Siegfried's Rhine Journey and Funeral March, from "Gotterdammerung."
The German composer's bicentennial is not receiving nearly the same amount of attention from Muti he is lavishing on his beloved Verdi this year. (Fortunately Lyric Opera is taking up much of the slack by presenting Wagner's "Die Meistersinger" this season and "Parsifal" the next.) The scattered "bleeding chunks" Muti has done here – he began the CSO season with the "Flying Dutchman" Overture – have been good enough to make you want more.
In this unofficial pendant to the CSO's "Rivers" festival, the maestro drew a flowing, richly sonorous reading from a huge orchestra that included five Wagner tubas and six harps. Daniel Gingrich nobly sounded Siegfried's horn call from offstage before rejoining the brass choir to underscore the majestic tread of the hero's funeral procession.
Much the same heightened attention to weight and quality of sound also marked Muti's accompaniment to Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major.
The soloist, the veteran Czech-born, Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder, was making his belated downtown CSO debut, 40 years after having performed with the orchestra for the first time, at Ravinia. Buchbinder was substituting for Leif Ove Andsnes, who has withdrawn from his late-spring engagements so that he might spend more time with his wife and newborn twins.
Viennese concert audiences regard Buchbinder, 66, with awed reverence. Listeners there may well be responding to the combination of stylistic authority and elegance that marks his playing. He has boasted of the fact that he owns 35 editions of the Beethoven piano sonatas, owns a vast collection of autograph scores and has performed and recorded nearly the entire Viennese classical canon.
His playing was impressive up to a point, certainly in the fleet, light-fingered manner in which he dispatched the Beethoven cadenzas. The pianism was articulate and well-regulated and carried with it a sure sense of structural integrity. Other interpreters have brought a more deeply penetrating tone (his entrance in the first movement was soft and measured), greater rhythmic stability and a more distinct individuality to the concerto, however, especially in the Orpheus-taming-the-Furies slow movement.
These virtues were in fact more apparent in the orchestral responses, which Muti alertly matched to Buchbinder's sometimes generous distention of phrases. Pianist and conductor had never worked together before but you would not have guessed as much from their tight collaboration. Buchbinder came in for a storm of applause.
Following intermission, Muti continued his leisurely traversal of the Bruckner symphonies with one of the less often performed scores, No. 1 in C minor, last heard at these concerts 18 years ago.
In company with most conductors, the Chicago maestro favors Bruckner's original version of 1866 over the problematic rewrite the self-doubting composer completed 25 years later. Muti certainly had the measure of the piece. One was struck not only by the far-sighted control with which he held together Bruckner's expansive paragraphs but also by how sensitively he allowed the music to breathe. In this respect he showed the Austrian composer's often overlooked debt to Schubert, whose entire symphonic canon the music director will survey here next season.
Grading Bruckner's climaxes so they formed a coherent expressive arch, Muti gave the grand solemnity of the slow movement its due weight but also a kind of devotional warmth that put one in mind of the Bruckner playing of the Vienna Philharmonic. In the brusque Scherzo, Muti and his orchestra were simply unbeatable, wonderfully alive to the music's rustic merriment.
Bruckner's awkward pauses in the finale weaken the structure of this movement and make it hard to bring off convincingly. Not so with Muti at the helm: The music pressed forward grandly and inexorably to its final blaze of C major triumph. The orchestra played gloriously for Muti all the way through.
The program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; $28-$243. Mozart's Symphony No. 41 ("Jupiter") replaces the Bruckner symphony at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday; $45-$230. 312-294-3000, cso.org
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