Russian Symphonies Illuminated by Italian Elegance and American Virtuosity

United StatesUnited States  Scriabin and Tchaikovsky: Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Riccardo Muti (conductor), Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, Chicago. 3.3.2015 (BJ)

Scriabin: Symphony No. 2 in C minor
Tchaikovsky:  Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Pathétique


This return visit to Chicago’s Orchestra Hall was nostalgia twice over for me. As music critic of the Chicago Daily News from 1967 to 1973, I heard several hundred concerts there, performed by the resident ensemble and any number of guests. Working as program annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1984 to 1991, I had the opportunity to hear Riccardo Muti conduct a wide variety of repertoire, ranging from the works of Bach and Handel and their contemporaries to world premieres from 20th-century luminaries as diverse as Ralph Shapey, Steven Stucky. Christopher Rouse, and Bernard Rands.

 While it’s a pity that Muti’s enterprise in programming, commissioning, and conducting new music has been too little celebrated, it is also true that such pillars of 19th and early 20th-century romanticism as the symphonies of Tchaikovsky and Scriabin—all of which he has recorded—were no less central pillars in his own repertoire. Hearing them again, played under his baton by the orchestra he has led amid seemingly universal plaudits since 2010, and in the hall that used to be my home away from home, was a deeply moving and intensely satisfying experience.

 I should not leave out of account the fact that I have not always been able to share every one of Muti’s enthusiasms. Yes, he taught me that Rossini, whom I had previously regarded as a wonderfully entertaining but perhaps not very profound composer, was indeed a master of the highest rank. Yes, a concert performance of Der fliegende Holländer by Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra similarly persuaded me of the greatness of that work (composed, as Muti remarked with some levity, while Wagner was still writing Italian music, and thus before he went crazy). But Scriabin remained through my years working for the maestro, and still remains, an essentially closed book to me.

 The Second Symphony did indeed yield up, in this superbly expressive and disciplined performance, some frissons of excitement and even of musical depth. The first movement in particular, in which the ensemble sound benefitted from the contrast of some moodily beautiful solos from principal clarinet Stephen Williamson, is a creation of notable craft, and the big tutti effects that dominate much of the score do indeed offer occasional effects of genuine majesty.

 But after intermission, with the opening measures of the Pathëtique, it felt as if a mongrel had given place to a thoroughbred. The clarity and elegance of Tchaikovsky’s line and texture came with the effect of clean spring water after the turbid eddies of Scriabin. In Tchaikovsky’s fourth, fifth, and sixth symphonies, Muti’s interpretations, while never shortchanging the extreme emotionalism of the music, always seemed less over-the-top—and less intent on being the loudest thing you ever heard—than the versions of many other conductors.

 So it was again in this masterly performance, which moreover managed, through the superfine balance Muti achieved, to give fresh prominence, new meaning, and revelatory beauty to many strands of the texture that one usually hears only, as it were, through a glass darkly. No wonder Chicago, and seemingly the whole orchestra, has fallen in love with the Chicago Symphony’s tenth music director.

Bernard Jacobson

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