Perhaps no program on this season’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra schedule was more promising than Thursday night’s pairing, which saw the return of both Riccardo Muti and his season-long series of Schubert’s works, this time featuring Schubert’s valedictory “Great” symphony (no. 9), proceeded the always popular Piano Concerto in A Minor by Robert Schumann performed by the Japanese virtuoso of long-standing renown, Mitsuko Uchida. These two titanic works are virtually guaranteed crowd pleasers which are not intended to surprise the audience but rather meet the anticipation of how they’re going to bring them off this time. In the case of this surefire winning twin bill, Muti’s approach to both pieces were highly subdued, muted interpretations that seemed designed to deflate the grandiose magnitude of both pieces but not dull their impact.
The program started by immediately diving in to the Schumann concerto. Uchida’s approach was a rather middle-of-the-road one, but never less than fully engaged with the music. It’s a tribute to her virtuosity, as well her familiarity with the repertoire that Uchida was able to make the performance seem rather routine, which it was not. Muti and the orchestra demonstrated from the outset of the piece that their role was exclusively a supporting one; at times, the rapport between orchestra and soloist was inspired and enough to take one’s breath away; at other times, the muted effect made the performance seem indistinct, solid but unspectacular.
Schubert’s 9th Symphony, unperformed in his lifetime, is a highly dramatic work that has “Greatness” written all over it. As much as any of his works, this symphony is one that paints the picture of Schubert as a great romantic, straining for immortality—in other words, the work that most closely follows the Beethoven model. Under Muti’s direction, the CSO’s performance was tightly controlled, the conductor admonishing his players who threatened not to sustain the effect. This muted Muti approach produced a sound that was slow, careful, but never turgid (anyway, not abnormally so, given Schubert’s occasional tendencies to do so). In this performance, the second Andante movement emerged as the symphony’s focal point, a slow, dramatic rendering with every detail painstakingly revealed, though the string playing at times seemed excessively lush.
Presumably, Muti’s approach here was to experiment with the symphony by taking a “Great” work and shrinking it so it could be examined with a microscope or magnifying glass. It takes confidence, acquired over many decades spent with this work, to present it that way, and Muti’s and the CSO’s Schubert, which will continue with two more symphonies next week, including the famed “Unfinished”, is characterized by this confidence.
photo credit: Todd Rosenberg