The Chicago Symphony Orchestra in New York (2) – Cherubini, Liszt and Shostakovich

Cherubini, Liszt, Shostakovich : Riccardo Muti (conductor), Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, New York City, 17.4.2011 (BH)

Cherubini : Overture in G Major (1815)
: Les préludes (1849-1855)
: Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47 (1937)

In spite of some initial disappointment from this listener at the change in this Carnegie Hall program (originally to have included Varèse’s Arcana and a new piece by Anna Clyne), Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra completed their three-concert stand with a memorable afternoon that left a firm mark. Not only does the recently formed partnership seem an intelligent idea, but Muti himself appears in relatively fine shape, physically, directing the ensemble with unalloyed vigor and passion.

Cherubini’s Overture in G minor reflects his operatic training, and in that respect is an ideal curtain-raiser to show Muti’s skills. Suffused with warmth, the piece was anchored by some of the most graceful string playing I’ve heard this season. Part of Muti’s talent is his ability to grasp a work’s paragraphs, and connect them with an unerring flow – a quality on stunning display in his concert version of Verdi’s Otello two days earlier.

But it was also evident in Liszt’s Les préludes, which seemed natural, organic – as if sprouting from some vast underground spring. The Chicago brass seemed invincible, and passages that can sound bloated and coarse in the wrong hands had a seductive luster. And oddly, with each orchestral eruption, the maestro seemed to grow calmer. With not one, but two curtain calls at the end – and many in the audience standing – it seemed as if an encore were about to appear, but no such luck.

After intermission, he took the podium, whirled around and plunged into Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony with confidence that says, “This great orchestra and I are about to give you something really special,” and so it was. In the stentorian first movement, although climaxes were very loud – make no mistake – Muti seemed to find more heart in the soft sequences. Near the end, the violas, cellos and bass offered a tense, sad backdrop – meticulously controlled – with compelling solos from flutist Mathieu Dufour and concertmaster Robert Chen. The exhilarating second movement had too many marvelous solo moments to recall, sometimes wriggling away as quickly as they appeared. The great Largo was overflowing with a sense of quiet sobbing, and I had the odd sensation of simultaneous motion and stasis, of dark waters quietly lapping at a grave site.

Irresistible momentum was the hallmark of the finale; the scorching first climax reared up like a dragon, snapping a coiled tail. With the strings building relentlessly, some delicate reminiscences in the winds, precise monitoring from the percussion unit, and brass almost serving as a second rhythmic spine – all came together as if Muti were a general mapping out a war strategy. In his days in Philadelphia, I don’t recall ever hearing Muti tackle Shostakovich, and it’s clear that he should – more often.

Bruce Hodges