Vivaldi: Concerto in A Major for Strings and Continuo, R. 158
Mozart: Symphony No. 38 in D Major, K. 504 (Prague)
Beethoven: Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major, Op. 60
At the Orchestra Hall, Chicago
I entered the concert hall this evening not without trepidation. For all the adulation poured upon him by the city (to say nothing of the CSO management), I have had certain experiences in the past of Riccardo Muti conducting standard repertoire that left me underwhelmed, to say the least; and here he is to lead a program dominated by some of the most demanding standard German repertoire there is, Mozart and Beethoven. As it turned out, this program’s performances – Muti’s second Chicago concert since the fall, what with his cancellations due to health problems in January and February, including the orchestra’s international tour – ranged in quality from quite good to inspired.
Vivaldi’s short but substantial R. 158 Concerto was offered as an appetizer to the two symphonies that took up most of the concert. This concerto ripieno features no soloists and is really more of a proto-symphony than a concerto; with its three short movements it is rather like the so-called sinfonias, or overtures, such as written by the late Baroque composer William Boyce, and even the younger Mozart. Muti clearly has a special attachment to this work – he led the CSO’s last performance of it back in 1975 – and led a very small string section in a finely polished rendition that was both spirited and intimate.
I was less impressed by the performance of Mozart’s Prague Symphony, admittedly a much longer and more complex work (which is not to deny that the Vivaldi is delightful in its own right). Muti took the slow introduction relatively quickly and deflected attention from its darker undertones, yet without trivializing it. Into the main allegro, as in the Vivaldi I was struck by the great attention lavished upon phrasing. I did miss a certain sense of drama, and throughout the first movement it was the lyrical passages that commanded my attention the most. Muti’s approach to the whole symphony was elegant and refined, sometimes at the expense of intensity. Much of the darkness in the second-movement Andante was missing, and the finale could have been more boisterous. There is much to be said for Muti’s exquisite sense of lyricism displayed here – indeed it is a great asset in Mozart – but there are other elements in the score as well. And although the orchestra was in good form, a sweeter string tone than the CSO provided, aside from being generally ideal for Mozart, would perhaps have made this interpretation more appealing. (A bigger sound – even a larger string section with doubled winds, as Mozart himself craved – would also have been welcome.)
Muti was more convincing in the Beethoven Fourth Symphony that ended the program. The performance of the Fourth, Beethoven at his most playful, was filled with the same delightfully singing lines and imaginative phrasing heard in the previous pieces – to Muti’s credit, this was clearly a meticulously rehearsed performance – yet there was more real vigor than in the Mozart, even if it was somewhat restrained. The delightful slow movement, with the nagging two-note phrase that gets tossed around the various sections of the orchestra for much of it, came across especially well. If anything, it kept gathering steam, culminating in a joyous finale with the most unbuttoned playing of the evening. The winds, with principal Mathieu Dufour holding up the solo flute line marvelously, were a delight; and the strings’ rather dry tone came across better in the Beethoven than in the Mozart.
Even if the standing ovation greeting Muti and the orchestra at the end was not quite deserved, this was certainly a worthwhile program, and the Vivaldi and Beethoven, at least, were quite satisfying.
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