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Muti’s Mass in B minor at the CSO

Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Muti’s Mass in B minor: Polished, Pretty and Un-ambitious


  • Bach Mass in B Minor

Additional Dates for this Performance

Apr12,  Apr13 ,Apr16 performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

At Orchestra Hall, Chicago

Riccardo Muti did in fact make it up to the podium yesterday evening, apparently as fit and unscathed as ever, to conduct Bach’s glorious Mass in B minor, although we might have held our breath before the stage door finally opened. Maestro Muti has become almost as notorious as his palpably less fit colleague James Levine, former director of the Boston Symphony and convalescent leader of the Metropolitan Opera, for cancelling scheduled engagements due to poor health.  That Maestro Muti time commitment to this orchestra has been markedly less than that what Levine gave to the BSO, even hitched up on a swivel chair, should undoubtedly be an object of frustration for CSO subscribers, who were still basking in the glow of acquiring the famous Italian conductor as music director when he canceled nearly his entire first season due to various ailments.  Maestro Muti has a certain debt of honor to pay to Chicago audiences of which last night should have been his first down-payment. That this was only partially the case might have CSO subscribers still scratching their heads.

chicago symphony orchestra
Riccardo Muti

The Mass in B minor is in a sense Bach’s last will and testament, the product of his very last compositional energies before his death in 1750.  Its two hour and 45 minute length is certainly imposing; but though not without majesty this work does not have the sublime, cataclysmic qualities of the last monumental works of such later composers as Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven. In its most beautiful moments the Mass in B minor has a sort of divine serenity and languor, as of one who had taken stock of his life’s work, and, in sum, was prepared to leave this world rather contented.

There is a great risk that the first 45 minutes of the Mass in B minor will sound so perfunctory as to cause especially novice listeners to “tune out” before the lovely music has really begun. Such was the case in this performance. The opening chorus of “Kyrie Eleison”, usually enchanting, sounded wry and un-blended. The orchestra’s significantly reduced forces in the strings were all too apparent, and combined with the quasi-period technique of using almost no vibrato, one had the impression the CSO’s regularly underwhelming strings were agin going to sully promising performance. One sensed a certain very positive opening up of the sound, however, as if the orchestra had finally gotten comfortable in their seats, in the “Domine Deus” duet of the Gloria, with  simple flute accompaniment (the reliable CSO principle Mathieu Dufour).  I am afraid it was not coincidental that this occurred in a place in which the strings had almost no role. More satisfying still was the sublimely languid entrance of the excellent Chicago Symphony Chorus with “qui tollis peccata mundi”, again with prominent flute accompaniment. More lovely still was the accompaniment of the superb Eugene Izotov on “oboe d’amore” in “qui sedes ad dextram patris”, at which point one really began to feel sitting through 45 minutes of blandness was still worth the price of admission for what came afterwards.

In the second half of the program Maestro Muti’s vision of an elegantly understated, and yet beautifully polished rendition of the Mass in B minor finally came to fruition. The enchantingly hushed quality of the Credo’s chorus “Et incarnatus est” somehow compelled the CSO’s violin sections, here all playing in unison, to sound genuinely tender. And the chorus of “Et resurrexit tertia die” (and he rose again on the third day) is an appropriate sort of breaking through of revelatory light, though, especially in this performance, it was always confined within the bounds of the well-measured and well polished.  The final two sections of the piece, particularly the heart-wrenching duet “agnus dei” is especially memorable; it is perhaps one of those few selections of music one would be perfectly content to here over and over again without stopping. And the reiteration of the stretto fugue of the Credo’s “gratias agimus”, in the closing chorus of “Dona Nobis Pacem”, is a thing of wonder.


Gabriel Kalcheim

Date Reviewed: April 11, 2012

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