Muti explores the far side of Haydn and Mozart

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Portrait by Della Croce, c. 1780

Mozart seated at the piano with his sister Maria Anna as father Leopold looks on. 

Music director may be the conventional name for an orchestra’s chief conductor, but artistic director more accurately defines the best of them. As much as anything, it is Riccardo Muti’s creative and purposeful programming that’s bringing such excitement and promise to his new directorship of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

The Sept. 30 concert at Orchestra Hall, which matched symphonies by Haydn and Mozart, provided a telling case in point. By choosing less familiar works, both early and late, from each composer, Muti illustrated connections and differences that often go unobserved. In all four symphonies – Haydn Nos. 39 and 89 and Mozart Nos. 25 and 34 – Muti and a classically scaled CSO offered stylish performances of exquisite beauty.

To be sure, Muti is a consummate conductor, a technical master and architectural builder with an interior decorator’s eye for detail. Not least, as the Mozart-Haydn encounter attested, his performances bespeak a love for the art of music that makes him any composer’s plausible surrogate.

Lest anyone miss the shared Sturm-und-Drang proto-Romanticism of Haydn’s Symphony No. 39 in G minor and Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 in G minor, Muti prefaced these readings with some spoken program notes. Beyond the obvious minor keys in common, he suggested, the shadowed and fretful agitation of Haydn’s finale (1770) seems to be taken up almost as continued thought in the opening movement of Mozart’s work (1773).

Mozart also borrowed the older composer’s distinctive wind complement of pairs of oboes and bassoons plus four French horns. But he did not emulate Haydn’s slow movement, a delicately spun episode for strings alone that Muti plumbed for its full measure of sparkle and grace.

The Mozart 25th, sometimes tagged (perhaps dismissively) as the “Little G minor” in reference to the great Symphony No. 40, was surely the most familiar work on the program. It’s the opening music in Milos Forman’s 1984 film “Amadeus.” It’s also pregnant with things to come, especially things operatic, from the 17-year-old composer.

Its dark, tremulous opening plainly foretells “Don Giovanni,” just as the slow movement’s liquid lyricism anticipates the spirit of “Cosi fan tutte.” Little wonder that Muti the opera maestro should turn both to splendid effect.

The comparison of later works began with Mozart’s brilliant but curiously under-performed Symphony No. 34 in C major (1780). The grandly sweeping first movement, its trumpet flourishes gleaming here, sounded like a study piece for the majestic “Jupiter” Symphony written eight years later. In Muti’s measured care emerged Mozart the fully mature symphonist, sketching an expansive slow movement that the CSO imbued with an assured intimacy and poise.

Haydn’s Symphony No. 89 in F (1787) crowned the concert. Gone were the storms of yesteryear, and in their place a confident nobility as well as those numberless touches of wry humor that stamp the aging composer as a perpetual scamp. With a restraint that kept tension on the line while allowing Haydn’s dazzling interior voices to shine, Muti left this listener with no wish but to take the whole evening once again from the top – and then to explore every last one of Haydn’s symphonies.

Repeats Oct. 1 at 8 p.m., Oct. 5 at 730 p.m. www.cso.org. (312) 294-3000.