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Muti and Pollini at the CSO

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Beethoven: Consecration of the House Overture, Op. 124

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467

Mendelssohn: Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Overture, Op. 27

Schumann: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 97 (Rhenish)

Muti and Pollini at the CSO

This weekend, Riccardo Muti and the CSO are offering a sort of walking tour through the high Classical and early Romantic orchestral literature; with works by Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Schumann, all that’s missing, one could argue, is Haydn (whose plethora of orchestral masterpieces really ought to be represented on concert programs much more often) and Schubert.  In some ways, I think, it was an overly ambitious program that might have benefited in terms of consistency by being shorter and/or more focused.  The rarely-played but engaging late Beethoven overture that opened the program, The Consecration of the House, gave some suggestions of being under-rehearsed: Muti’s conducting was lively enough, and technically the performance went smoothly, but the great contrapuntal passages lacked impact and incisive articulation in the string lines, and the quieter sections felt bland and could have used a keener lyrical sensibility.  Also disconcerting was a certain harshness in the tonal quality of the woodwinds.  Yet as a whole, the piece came across successfully.

chicago symphony orchestra
Riccardo Muti

In many ways, the performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 that followed was more satisfying.  Italian virtuoso Maurizio Pollini is perhaps not the first name one thinks of for Mozart’s piano music, but his technical skill, at very least, is first class and there was much to enjoy in his performance.  This was very assertive Mozart playing – sparkling rather than flowing, bright-toned but lacking somewhat in warmth.  But his playing was effortless and never heavy-handed. 

I was also quite impressed by the orchestral accompaniment.  It was a bit daintier at times than it could have been, but Muti otherwise achieved a near-perfect balance between vigor and gracefulness, with a sweetly-singing tone that is a tremendous advantage in Mozart (and which I have heard all too infrequently from this orchestra).  Even if the orchestra’s performance here was not seamless – they took a bit of time to warm up at the beginning of the first movement, in particular, and the violins did not cope perfectly with all the high-register writing in the slow movement – I am strongly inclined to say that this is the finest Mozart playing I have heard from the CSO of late, a real joy in one of the most consistently sunny of Mozart’s great late piano concertos. 

Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Overture, inspired by poems by Goethe (whom Mendelssohn as a child prodigy met and played piano for), received another fine performance.  Its intensity verged on being fitful – there were times at which it struck me as underplayed – but there was also real exuberance at times, and some playing of the utmost delicacy and charm.  The brass blared away as usual, but the richness of their sound was very satisfying. 

Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony – his fourth and final symphony, in fact, in spite of being known as the Third; what we call his Fourth had been written earlier and delayed in publication until Schumann went back and revised it after completing the Rhenish – is a problem piece in more ways than one and could hardly help but be something of a letdown after three very-good-to-great works; it also poses a significant challenge, in some ways, to the conductor.  Schumann’s symphonies are notorious for their dense, awkward orchestration, and it is nearly enough to expect a conductor to balance the orchestra such that all the parts can be heard.  But this symphony in particular is also naggingly frustrating in that it is filled with terrifically inspired melodies yet tends to drag on repetitively without the clearly-defined dramatic structure that is de rigueur in a symphony.  Muti generally managed the balances very well – with the exception of those brass! – but avoided trying to impart much momentum or epic sweep, potential ways  to make the work more at least appear more dramatically unified.  Rather, he seemed so focused on drawing out the many momentary beauties of the music produced some lovely results, particularly effective in the first movement, but the impression often became labored or excessively mannered; the frequent heavy-handed slowing down in the finale, which was generally too low-key, especially seemed to work against the music.  For those who love this work on its own terms, I found Muti’s mannerisms a bit less distracting, and the playing more spirited, in the first four movements, although I am not sure the elusive slow movement was as lyrical as it could have been – not the CSO’s strong suit, typically. 

In short, then, a bit of a mixed bag altogether, but nothing that is not worth hearing.  Recommended for the Mozart, with the Beethoven and Mendelssohn overtures thrown in for good measure. 


Samuel Wigutow

Date Reviewed: April 25m 2012

Additional Dates for this Performance:

Friday, April 26 at 8 PM

Saturday, April 27 at 8 PM

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