United States Rossini, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Haydn, Prokofiev, S. Adams, Schumann: Soloists, Chicago Symphony Chorus/Duain Wolfe (director), Chicago Children’s Choir, Josephine Lee (artistic director), Chicago Symphony Orchestra / Riccardo Muti (conductor). Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center and Holy Name Cathedral, Chicago. 16-17-25.2; 21.3.2017. (DP)
Rossini – Overture to Semiramide
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op.58
Mendelssohn – Symphony No. 5 in D Major, Op.107, “Reformation”
Haydn – The Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross, Hob, XX/1A
Prokofiev – Ivan the Terrible, Op.116
Rossini – Overture to La scala di seta
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op.37
S. Adams – many words of love (World Premiere)
Schumann – Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op.120
After what by all accounts was a spectacular eleven-city European tour with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, music director Riccardo Muti returned to Chicago for a late-winter residency: four programs over three-and-a-half weeks. (Esa-Pekka Salonen led two weeks of concerts between the third and fourth programs of this series.)
Two of the programs opened with Rossini overtures – music particularly associated with Muti. Aside from a memorable William Tell Overture done last season at an off-site Pension Fund concert, it is surprising that the conductor has not done more Rossini with the ensemble.
The overture to Semiramide bubbled forth with such extraordinary grace and musicality that it is clear that with the CSO, Muti has found the perfect medium to execute the nuances of his kaleidoscopic conception of music of a composer he feels is unjustly neglected. No less impressive was the overture to La scala di seta, which spotlighted newly-returned CSO principal oboist Alex Klein and piccolo player Jennifer Gunn with spectacular aplomb.
It would be great to see Rossini overtures become a regular presence in Muti/CSO programming, not only to add sparkle and diversity to concerts, but to record an album of them – an overdue catalog item for the orchestra. Half a century ago, the ensemble recorded a set under Fritz Reiner, and in the late 1970s a television broadcast appeared with Sir Georg Solti, but neither of these gentlemen had the flair for this repertoire that Muti does.
A Beethoven Piano Concerto cycle is a regular event at the CSO as it is for many orchestras – recorded cycles have included Ashkenazy under Solti and Brendel under Levine – but Muti’s vision was to have a different soloist for each concerto. And at least in the case of the two entries heard during this winter residency, both were cast against type.
Yefim Bronfman, a pianist primarily associated with bravura blockbuster repertoire, performed the Fourth Piano Concerto; Mitsuko Uchida, primarily associated with Mozart and Classicism, performed the Third. In each case, the result was a refreshing reconsideration of the familiar.
Bronfman is such a skilled virtuoso that he can bring much meaning and subtlety to works that are overplayed. This was an unusually introspective traversal, supported by Muti and the musicians: a remarkably poetic performance in which soloist, conductor and orchestra shared the same vision and went deep inside of the music.
Uchida, who plays and conducts Mozart concertos with the CSO annually, made a rare appearance with Muti. When Uchida conducts from the piano, the results have been a bit cool and detached for these ears. But the addition of someone completely responsible for the orchestral sonority not only wrought an extraordinary partnership, unified with her conception, but the freedom to have a single role elevated Uchida’s performance to another level. She seemed so at ease that she was far more willing to take chances and explore the musical depths. Far from being a thoroughly Classical approach as might be expected, Uchida unabashedly brought out many Romantic elements.
Although Muti has performed a fair amount of Mendelssohn with the orchestra during his music directorship, the “Reformation” Symphony received its first Muti/CSO performances, to commemorate the Reformation’s 500th anniversary.
Even with Muti’s careful nuancing, the explicit telegraphing of Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” in the finale came off as mundane, given the rest of the engaging program. With Muti, it felt as though the famous “Dresden Amen” – intoned with sparkling solemnity – was the real heart. This listener began to daydream what the conductor and the CSO, one of the great Wagner orchestras, might do with Wagner’s Parsifal, which transforms that motif to such extraordinary effect.
How ironic that after a concert that celebrated the Reformation, Muti and the orchestra were in Holy Name Cathedral the next night, in a pre-Lent concert of Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross. Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, Archbishop of Chicago, served as narrator, offering meditations between the movements.
Muti has a strong attachment to the Haydn, having recorded it with both the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics, as well as with La Scala as a telecast that is available on DVD. Most movingly for Muti, he and members of the Vienna Philharmonic performed the piece at the grave of Haydn on the 200th anniversary of the composer’s death.
This was actually the second time that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra had performed in Holy Name Cathedral: in 1979, when Pope John Paul II visited Chicago, he requested to hear Solti and the orchestra, who performed Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony for the pontiff. As in 1979, a platform was set up for the orchestra, which for the Haydn was chamber-size.
Cardinal Cupich sat to the side and ascended to the podium for his own brief meditations on the “words,” which achieved the perfect balance between the sacred and the secular. His remarks on forgiveness were particularly powerful, closing with the thought that “God is willing to let go of the past, and so should we. Only then do we have a real future.”
It is not an easy task to differentiate the color and character of seven adagios, preceded by a slow introduction and ending with an earthquake, but Muti was able to do so in epic and sublime fashion. There was always an eye on the overall dramatic arc as well as the individual details – like a sacred necklace. Muti somberly remained standing on the podium throughout the seven meditations and went directly into the music as the Cardinal would conclude. The remarks were brief and no repeats were taken, so the entire evening was a poignant, uninterrupted eighty minutes.
The following week was devoted to a single work, Prokofiev’s Ivan the Terrible, an oratorio Prokofiev wrote for Sergei Einsenstein’s planned World War II-era triptych of films on Tsar Ivan IV. Only Ivan the Terrible Part One was released at the time. Part Two was originally banned by Stalin and was not released until the Khrushchev era, after the deaths of Eisenstein and Prokofiev, and the third part was never completed.
Like the previous Eisenstein/Prokofiev collaboration, Alexander Nevsky, portions of Ivan the Terrible were arranged into a performance suite – posthumously by Abram Stasevich, a Prokofiev student and assistant who had conducted the score for the films.
Muti has had a long association with Ivan, having found a score in a Vienna music shop in the early ’70s and then recording it, first with the Philharmonia Orchestra, and much later, for an upcoming release with the Vienna Philharmonic. The piece was the climax of a season-long celebration of Prokofiev’s 125th birthday by the CSO, with which, coincidentally, Prokofiev had performed on several occasions spanning nearly two decades.
Chicago has had its share of neglected repertoire advocated by Muti – works that are always interesting, though more often than not, the reason for the neglect remains obvious.
Not so with Ivan, in its first CSO performances, and it fit the orchestra’s sonic strengths like a glove. As robust as Alexander Nevsky was a couple of seasons ago, Ivan actually is more powerful, the last large-scale music that Prokofiev wrote. Its 80 minutes include speaking parts that include a narrator and Ivan, two vocalists, full chorus, and a children’s chorus. Far from merely providing a soundtrack to Eisenstein’s cinematic iconography, the music is so intense and evocative that it stands compellingly by itself.
Unlike so much of Prokofiev’s non-narrative music which is always well-crafted and reveals a strong musicianship, Ivan, like his other stage works, has a more explicitly emotional quality and unabashed authenticity.
The solo vocalists, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and bass Mikhail Petrenko, only have a couple of sections, but these were well rendered. Cooke was poignant in the “Ocean-Sea” song, part of the original prelude to the first film (but that never made the final release), and Petrenko brought some comic relief with his frenzied “Song of Fyodor Basmanov and the Oprichniki” at the climax.
The real vocal “character” of the oratorio is the chorus – here the Chicago Symphony Chorus – appropriately made to sound like a Russian Orthodox church choir for significant sections, and augmented for the climax by the Chicago Children’s Choir. The theatrical variety of roles and colors brought forth some of the most extensive and challenging singing this chorus has been called upon to perform.
But stealing the show was the mad Ivan himself, given the luxurious casting of French actor Gérard Depardieu, who sputtered and sparked with a growling intensity, and yet evoked a forlorn and world-weary tenderness that made him downright sympathetic.
A couple of seasons ago, when Muti chose then 29-year old Samuel Adams as a CSO composer-in-residence, it was on the basis of his scores and without knowledge that composer John Adams was his father; Muti had never conducted music of the elder Adams in any case. (Curiously, John Adams did not come to hear his own music performed by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the CSO during the previous two weeks before this world premiere, but did attend the final performance of his son’s piece.)
The new work many words of love was commissioned by the orchestra and its title comes from a line in Wilhelm Müller’s “Der Lindenbaum” that Schubert set in Winterreise, referring to the bark of a tree where many words of love are carved. Yet there is little discernable connection as Adams’ work is instrumental and timbre-driven, with inspiration from Carl Stone’s Shing Kee that incorporates small repeated phrases from the Schubert.
The twenty-minute piece comes off somewhat like Ligeti-meets-George-Crumb in its overall sonic ambience – a slow, tightly chromatic ascent and descent with diatonic dashes that build to something that ultimately feels elusive. Its virtuosity results from asking instruments to achieve myriad impressive effects, even more evocative with the nuance from Muti and the orchestra.
It is clear that there is significant talent here, and that an important compositional voice is emerging. But as a stand-alone piece, many words of love feels like an appetizer on the way to something else – perhaps a movement of a larger work?
Schumann Fourth Symphony is the composer’s final word on a work he had premiered a decade before, but which he pulled after having been poorly received. It was rethought and reworked, although Schumann had trouble deciding if it was a symphony or a fantasy and ultimately called it a “symphonic fantasy.”
Despite its earlier version, which may well have failed due to being too radical for its time, the Fourth remains the composer’s most adventurous piece in the genre. It owes huge debts to both Beethoven and Berlioz, but Schumann moved beyond them, expanding Classical elements to the point of hyper-Romanticism, where forms and themes are vigorously transformed.
Its orchestration is often criticized, so much so that Mahler re-orchestrated it, but Muti uses Schumann’s original. At a public rehearsal for these performances, Muti said to the audience, “I, personally – and many conductors before me – have used the original orchestration, despite some of its weaknesses. It is not like Tchaikovsky, where you have absolutely perfect orchestration. But I am against a piece wearing a cloak from another century. If you change the cloak, it can even change the face, no?”
The clarity and transparency were extraordinary, with Muti skillfully addressing balance issues caused by the thick orchestration. In the second-movement unison cello and oboe solo, for instance, it is rare to hear it done so homogenously that the two instruments blend to create a new texture. And the transformed theme of the last movement was so clear that as it emerged, it sounded as if it were entirely new.