Muti, Chicago SO Dazzle In Pairing Schubert, Mahler

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Riccardo Muti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Orchestra Hall in June 2014.  (Photos by Todd Rosenberg)
Riccardo Muti and the  Chicago Symphony Orchestra concluded their 2013-14 season with Schubert and Mahler.
(Photos by Todd Rosenberg)
By Ken Keaton

CHICAGO – Riccardo Muti led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in remarkable performances of Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 and Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 on June 19 in Orchestra Hall. The Schubert was all loving warmth, the Mahler a long journey to an overwhelming climax. As a visitor to Chicago who hadn’t heard this orchestra live for over a decade, I had to wonder: Are they all like this? Do these artists consistently produce work of such quality? If so, Chicagoans are fortunate, indeed.

The Chicago Symphony onstage at its home, Orchestra Hall.
The Chicago Symphony onstage at its home, Orchestra Hall.

Schubert’s first six symphonies are all early works, written when the composer was between the ages of 16 and 20. The fifth is my favorite of the lot, the most purely Mozartian – in the mood of his Symphony No. 29. Though the orchestra is known for its sheer power, a reduced contingent from the ensemble delivered a performance perfectly suited to the gentle, smiling contours of this early masterwork. Indeed, they played like a chamber group, each voice heard as if by a single player. Every note was important, each line shaped as if by a fine singer, all coalescing into a beautiful whole.

The Menuetto was a lively affair, with subtle accents expertly brought out for an engaging rhythm. Then, in the trio, all was legato, as if the strings had become winds, singing over a bass pedal.  In the final movement, Muti underscored the Italianate nature of the music – this was, after all, the age of Rossini, then the most popular composer in Europe. And don’t forget: Schubert studied under another Italian, Antonio Salieri.

After intermission, we entered another world, that of Gustav Mahler. It’s another early work, his first to be called a symphony, composed at the age of 28. Like much of Mahler’s music, it was met with a lack of comprehension by audiences of the day. Indeed, Mahler himself was conflicted regarding the work – how programmatic was this music, how should it be orchestrated? (He tinkered with the work on and off for years.) Then there’s that extra movement, “Blumine.” Where should it go? Should it be included at all? Eventually, Mahler jettisoned the movement, and Muti followed that practice.

Riccardo Muti performs Mahler's Symphony No. 1 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the conclusion of the 2013-14 season. (Todd Rosenberg)
Riccardo Muti conducts the CSO in Mahler’s First Symphony.

It’s easy to understand the misgivings of the First’s initial audiences. This is a vast, complex work, unprecedented for 1888. The opening is as unformed as the start of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps, though in a different way; it’s all mist, with melodic fragments piercing the fog. I’ve heard this passage played with more precision – I’ve never heard it played with more mystery.

Then, finally, the fog lifts, and we hear something familiar: the melody of the second song from Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, the Songs of a Wayfarer. The young man (Mahler himself?) is out for a lovely morning hike, across fields, merrily engaging with birds and flowers, under the bright sunshine. It’s hard not to infuse this music with programmatic ideas, whatever Mahler’s final intent. And it’s hard not to see in the climax the hike ending at the summit of a mountain, as the young man looks out over a vast plain and sees the face of the earth herself. The orchestra provided all that was needed for music of such power.

The second movement is a rustic Ländler, a joyous country dance, albeit in a rather large rural village. Next was that strange third movement, beginning with a minor key version of the children’s round “Frère Jacques” played on solo contrabass, followed by a frankly odd passage, a parody of klezmer band music. This juxtaposition of the beautiful and the mundane was to become a recurring feature in Mahler’s music, one that only he could bring off.

The horn section of the  Chicago Symphony standing at the end of Mahler's First.
The horn section of the Chicago Symphony stands at the end of Mahler’s First.

A crash of lightning opens the monumental final movement. Mahler left no program for the work, beyond that the crash is the “cry of a wounded heart,” but it reminds me very much of a storm at sea. This movement, indeed the entire performance, was paced perfectly. It unfolded with a sense of inevitability, like there is no other way the music could be played.

As the movement concludes, Mahler writes what seems to be a glorious climax, but doesn’t end the work. Instead, he brings back material from the first movement, as if to remind us of how far we have come, before repeating and expanding the climax to overwhelming effect. And, for once, the “false ending” didn’t sound like a false ending. Muti held back, just enough that the music gave no sense of truly concluding, and then led naturally to the real climax.

Members of the orchestra played at their peak. And I do mean everyone. When was the last time you heard a bass drum or gong played so beautifully, so powerfully, that you can only say “wow!”? Balance was perfection, and the only thing Muti and his band seemed incapable of was making ugly sounds.

Standing ovations are sometimes given out like party favors, but this one was truly earned. It was one of those nights of music making that I’ll remember for a long time.

Ken Keaton is Professor of Music for Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches historical musicology, music in general studies, and classical guitar.  He is the author of the textbook The Mystery of Music, and reviews concerts for the Palm Beach Daily News and recordings for American Record Guide, in addition to his contributions to CVNA.