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Saturday, 21 June 2014 16:20

Concert review: Two very different voices of spring with Muti and the Chicago Symphony at Orchestra Hall Thursday through Saturday, June 19-21

Muti conducts the Mahler 1st Muti conducts the Mahler 1st cso.org / Todd Rosenberg
Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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This weekend Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony are offering a pair of symphonies which, while originating in vastly different musical and cultural worlds, still have their roots in a love of nature and the sense of renewal that comes with spring.

The connection is most obvious in Mahler's 1881 "Symphony No. 1," with its hushed, expectant opening, its birdcalls, and what CSO program annotator Phillip Huscher calls "the gentle hum of the universe, tuned to A-natural and scattered over seven octaves." Schubert's 1816 "Symphony No. 5," though, has always had a sunny, "spring is here" feel for me as well. The association seems even more obvious when they're heard back to back.

As was the case with the Schubert 1st and 6th symphonies earlier in the week, Muti took a relaxed and elegant approach to the 5th, emphasizing the music's Mozartian grace. The little G-minor digression in the second movement has never sounded so wistfully sad—dark clouds are never far away from the sun in much of Schubert's music—and the performance as a whole was simply irresistible.

The Mahler that followed intermission was simply one of the most riveting and dramatically coherent performances of this wonderfully excessive symphony that I have ever heard. In his tempo choices (surprisingly slow for the first and last movements) and his ability to maintain a coherent musical and dramatic line, Muti reminded me a great deal of legendary Mahlerians like Bernstein and Walter.

The Mahler 1st has had a difficult history—audience and critics found it baffling from the beginning—and the episodic nature of the writing poses significant challenges to conductors. Muti held it all together nicely, though, with a beautifully and intelligently shaped performance. You never got the sense (as one sometimes does with this symphony) that the entire business was about to come to a screeching halt.

And he did that while still highlighting the chamber music–like moments and striking solo passages that alternate with Mahler's heaven-storming outbursts. Principal bass Alexander Hanna gave us an appropriately Hitchcockian funeral march in the third movement, for example, and the little dance band parodies in the woodwinds were delightfully cheeky. I heard details in the harp and strings that I had never heard quite so clearly before.

The big orchestral bits, meanwhile, were as overwhelming as you could wish. The CSO has a hefty violin section and that, combined with Muti's sure hand and the hall's acoustics, insured that the strings were never swamped by the brasses—which were both powerful and accurate. The percussion section performed with admirable precision as well.

This was, in short, a virtuoso effort by one of America's finest orchestras. The program has a final performance on Saturday, June 21, at 8 PM. For more information: cso.org.

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