Muti Sculpts Breathtaking Beethoven Ninth

Beethoven: Camilla Nylund (soprano), Ekaterina Gubanova (mezzo-soprano), Matthew Polenzani (tenor), Eric Owens, (bass-baritone), Chicago Symphony Chorus, Duain Wolfe (chorus director), Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Riccardo Muti (conductor). Orchestra Hall, Chicago. 18.9.2014 (DP)

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 (“Choral”) in D minor, Op. 125

Riccardo Muti with soprano Camilla Nylund, mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova, tenor Matthew Polenzani, bass-baritone Eric Owens and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Photo: Todd Rosenberg.
Riccardo Muti with soprano Camilla Nylund, mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova, tenor Matthew Polenzani, bass-baritone Eric Owens and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (c) Todd Rosenberg.

Riccardo Muti began his fifth season as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the last of his original contract, with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—a work he had not performed until this occasion in Chicago. Yet given that the CSO has further secured the services of the celebrated 73-year old Italian maestro for a second five-year contract that will take his music directorship through 2020, there was plenty to anticipate and to celebrate.

In 2010, former CSO principal conductor Bernard Haitink used the Ninth as a point of arrival, using the piece as the culmination of a complete Beethoven cycle that ended his Chicago tenure. Former music director Daniel Barenboim ended his time with the CSO in 2006 with a three-night string of ninths of Bruckner, Mahler and Beethoven. Instead, Muti preferred to use the mighty work as a point of departure, embarking on a new season and as a harbinger of a new chapter of the Muti era in Chicago.

It is also worth noting that Muti came to the Ninth relatively late in his career. He was 46 before he “dared” do it—the culmination of a Beethoven cycle when he was music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra—that produced the first-ever digital Beethoven CD set, which remains highly regarded. In Chicago, Muti has done only the Fourth and Fifth in the previous four seasons.

As is Chicago custom to inaugurate a new season, assembled forces took on “The Star-Spangled Banner,” coincidentally celebrating its 200th anniversary in September, complete with full chorus and orchestra, and the audience standing and singing along. Muti offered sweeping gestures to effectively guide those on both sides of the podium.

After a long pause to establish a canvas of silence, open fifths and fourths started to emerge with tranquil ambiguity before morphing to restless confidence in D minor. The tempo was brisk, the often overdone Sturm und Drang quotient refreshingly kept at a minimum. The movement was lyrical, fluid, balanced, eloquently layered and transparent.

The Scherzo was slightly slower than expected, more playful and mischievous rather than boisterously humorous, almost in a Mendelssohn-like manner. Muti emphasized the clarity of the movement’s classical elements, which in an odd way drew greater attention to their jarring transformations and sudden starts and stops. They came off more as inevitable than surprising.

The Adagio was beautifully rendered in a non-sentimental and never overdone fashion, imbued with energy and vitality throughout with strings unusually transparent. Even small accents and trills were done with precision and a lean sense of line before leading up to a remarkable accelerando.

With barely so much as a pause, the finale opened reflecting mere disorder rather than unbridled chaos. Low strings played quite vibrantly before the short reprises of the three movements which the strings reject before their unison statement of the “Ode to Joy” theme in unison—all remarkably hushed yet with a full-bodied sound. The build-up of dramatic tension and release was everything one would expect and hope for from Muti, still so associated with his near-twenty-year tenure at La Scala.

When bass-baritone Eric Owens entered, his “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!” came across less as an interruption and an admonition, than a plea for order and collective resolve. He proceeded to lead by example in call-and-response fashion with a remarkably restrained chorus that emulated his phrasing, diction and dynamic levels to extraordinary effect.

As the vocal quartet came into the sonority, they were remarkably balanced and singing with the same sense of purpose. Particularly noteworthy Finnish soprano Camilla Nyland, who reached soaring and seemingly effortless high notes organically, never drawing attention to herself. No less impressive was tenor Matthew Polenzani, who stepped in for an indisposed Christopher Ventris as if he had been there since day one. (William Burden sang the remaining performances through September 23.)

The real star of the finale and of the performance as a whole, however, was the Chicago Symphony Chorus. Now in its 57th season, the group has had only two directors: founder Margaret Hillis, whom then-CSO music director Fritz Reiner asked to form a professional-level chorus, and her successor Duain Wolfe, who has been at the helm for twenty years now.

It might have been enough if the chorus had met the notoriously difficult vocal demands with their customary aplomb, but Muti helped sculpt their sound into a true “character” across Beethoven’s cosmic drama. Their vocal color and dynamic level reflected the mood of the music and text in a breathtaking manner, whether dark, playful or celestial.

Dennis Polkow

Dennis Polkow is an award-winning Chicago-based writer whose work has appeared in The Chicago TribuneThe Chicago Sun-TimesThe Chicago ReaderNewcity Chicago, Chicago Classical Review, Encore, Citytalk, Spotlight, Chicago Musicale, Inside Chicago, as well as Musical AmericaThe New York Times, The Classical Review, Musician, Stagebill, Grammy Pulse, Clavier, The Instrumentalist, The Journal of the Conductor’s Guild and The Strad, among others.

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