Brilliance from Muti and Haitink in a Trio of Concerts

United StatesUnited States Verdi, Falstaff: Soloists, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Chorus, Riccardo Muti (conductor).

Tchaikovsky and Mahler: Rosa Feola (soprano), Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Riccardo Muti (conductor).

Mozart and R. Strauss: Till Fellner (piano), Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink (conductor).

All at Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, Chicago, 23, 24 & 28.4.2016 (BJ)

Verdi, Falstaff


Sir John Falstaff: Ambrogio Maestri (baritone)
Ford: Luca Salsi (baritone)
Fenton: Saimir Pirgu (tenor)
Doctor Caius: Saverio Fiore (tenor)
Bardolfo: Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani (tenor)
Pistola: Luca Dall’Amico(bass)
Mrs. Alice Ford: Eleonora Buratto (soprano)
Nannetta: Rosa Feola (soprano)
Mrs. Quickly: Daniela Barcellona (mezzo-soprano)
Mrs. Meg Page: Laura Polverelli (mezzo-soprano)
Burghers and street-folk, Ford’s servants, masquerade of devils, sprites, fairies, and witches:

Chicago Symphony Chorus, Duain Wolfe, director


Tchaikovsky: The Tempest, Symphonic Fantasia after Shakespeare, Op. 18; Romeo and Juliet, Fantasy-Overture after Shakespeare
Mahler: Symphony No. 4


Mozart, E-flat-major Concerto, K. 482
Strauss, Eine Alpensinfonie

Major masterpieces by Verdi and Strauss, brilliantly performed, book-ended my memorable week’s visit to Chicago, with Tchaikovsky, Mahler, and Mozart filling the space between them. Most predictable, but still stunning in its impact, was the concert performance of Verdi’s Falstaff, which formed the linchpin of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s “Shakespeare in Music” celebration to mark the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death. Muti had assembled an all-Italian cast (though the fine young tenor Saimir Pirgu, who sang Fenton and now holds Italian citizenship, is Albanian by birth), so it was perhaps to be expected that the words of Boito’s marvelous libretto would be delivered with authoritative and idiomatic clarity.

It doesn’t always work that way: I once attended a piano rehearsal with four principals appearing in a La Scala production of Verdi’s Attila at which the only singer whose pronunciation Muti repeatedly picked on was the one Italian in an otherwise all-American group—revealing that singing in your native language can lead as easily to slovenliness as to perfect diction.

On this occasion, however, all was well, both linguistically and musically. And “well” might be called the understatement of the year when applied to Ambrogio Maestri, who is without serious competition as the Falstaff of our time. The only one of the soloists who had no copy of the music on his stand—singing the part he has made his own since Muti, his valued mentor, was the conductor when he made his role debut in it 15 years ago—Maestri unfurled a rich baritone in perfect trim, and presented an immaculately nuanced portrait of the vain and boastful yet lovable knight.

Among the other members of a uniformly excellent line-up of principals, special praise is due to the dramatically intense and strongly sung Ford of Luca Salsi; to Eleonora Buratto as his feisty and charming wife, Alice; to the silver-voiced Rosa Feola as their daughter, Nannetta; and to Daniela Barcellona, a deliciously insinuating Mrs. Quickly. With equally convincing performances from the rest of the cast, sparkling work from the orchestra and Duain Wolfe’s Chicago Symphony Chorus, and Muti’s masterly pacing and shaping of the work, the result was a concert performance that realized every aspect of Verdi’s most intellectually absorbing opera with a vividness that matched anything I have ever witnessed in fully staged Falstaffs. As Verdi himself said, he was not a learned composer but he was a very experienced one, and under Muti’s equally experienced hand his orchestral writing came across as a trove of inexhaustibly inventive and dramatically apposite inspirations.

More Shakespeare-influenced music was on the program the following afternoon. In both of the pieces in its first half, the richness of the CSO’s playing was fully matched by the lucid layering of lines that Muti elicited from scores that can too easily degenerate into undifferentiated mush. Again, with one of Tchaikovsky’s finest contemporary exponents on the podium, the sweep and emotional heft of the Romeo and Juliet performance could be expected. But though the composer’s much less familiar take on The Tempest lacks a big tune like the one in Romeo to enchant the groundlings, I found it on this occasion an equally compelling and also a more original work, especially in the undulations of lower strings that give its first ten minutes a restrained yet ominously stormy effect ideally suited to the play it is designed to evoke.

Mahler’s music, even when he is writing on the relatively modest scale of his Fourth Symphony, is a matter of strongly contrasted, even conflicting, moods and modes of expression. There is a powerful element in it of obsessiveness, and contrariwise a penchant for riding madly off in all directions. Muti, it seems to me, is better suited in temperament to the first of those two characteristics, and the powerfully concentrated performance he led after intermission stressed that obsessive quality to illuminating effect, especially in an uncompromisingly unified reading of the slow movement.

With the more wayward facets of Mahler’s artistic persona, on the other hand, Muti seems to feel less at home—perhaps he lacks the kind of inner insecurity that a conductor needs if he is to identify fully with this emotionally conflicted composer. So it was, for example, that a passage early in the first movement where a precipitous downward scale is answered by a juicily expressive theme in the cellos came over as irreproachably logical, missing the sense of unpredictability that makes the sequence of events so unmistakably Mahlerian.

I should not insist too much on what I felt was the one questionable aspect of a performance marked by much telling and illuminating detail. The many little gruppetti and grace-notes in the woodwind and horn parts were executed with rare precision and force. The strings sang with glorious eloquence. The previous evening’s Nannetta, Rosa Feola, was a polished and affecting soloist in the finale’s depiction of The Heavenly Life (though I did feel that the orchestra was allowed to obscure her line somewhat). And in a number of important solos the playing of Keith Buncke revealed what a treasure the CSO acquired when he took up the position of principal bassoon: at the age of 22, he already makes a sound as gorgeous as I have ever heard from the instrument, and deploys it with the discernment of a master.

The third concert I attended brought to the podium another conductor who has a distinguished history of his own with the Chicago Symphony. From 2006 to 2010, Bernard Haitink served as its principal conductor during the interregnum between the music directorships of Daniel Barenboim and Riccardo Muti, and the seeming effortlessness with which the players responded to his unfussy direction spoke impressively for the rapport they had then developed.

Orchestra and conductor were also in impeccable rapport with Till Fellner, the expressive and technically adept soloist in the E-flat-major Concerto, K. 482, that opened the program. This is one of the most spacious of all Mozart’s piano concertos. The performance we heard, thoroughly mainstream in character, was equally responsive to its grandeur and to the pathos of the minor-key slow movement, while the work’s frequent wind-ensemble episodes in serenade style were enhanced by flawless intonation and by consistently fine tone and phrasing from a guest principal flute from the Pittsburgh Symphony, Lorna McGhee, and again from bassoonist Buncke.

Strauss’s Alpensinfonie then brought my week of concerts to an end in a reading of suitably awe-inspiring majesty. Now 87, Haitink seemed scarcely to break a sweat, conducting with the undemonstrative economy of gesture that is always combined in his work with consummate intensity of communication. The Alpine Symphony is a relative rarity in the concert hall—if you want to catch up with it on CD, the late Frank Shipway’s recording with the São Paulo Symphony on the BIS label offers some of the most magnificent orchestral sound I have ever heard on disc—but this performance by the Chicago Symphony demonstrated conclusively that the work’s relative neglect can be due only to its exorbitant demands in the matter of orchestral forces. The music itself is as viscerally thrilling, as ravishingly beautiful, and as skillfully shaped as anything Strauss wrote.

A final word of praise is due to the CSO for the excellence of its presentation. Falstaff came not only with well-managed super-titles but also with a handsomely printed booklet containing the complete libretto in Italian and English, and Phillip Huscher’s program notes for all three concerts were, as always, at once informative and a pleasure to read.

Bernard Jacobson


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