Riccardo Muti’s ‘Winter’ return celebrates Tchaikovsky, Brahms

SHARE Riccardo Muti’s ‘Winter’ return celebrates Tchaikovsky, Brahms
SHARE Riccardo Muti’s ‘Winter’ return celebrates Tchaikovsky, Brahms

BY ANDREW PATNER | FOR THE SUN-TIMES

Riccardo Muti is back on the podium and back in the music director’s suite at a time of many changes at Orchestra Hall.

Jeff Alexander, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association’s new president, took up his position on Monday. A new vice-president for artistic planning, European Cristina Rocca, will start next month. Auditions are being held or planned for three empty first chairs in the CSO’s wind section — horn, bassoon and now flute — and the principal oboe has announced that he is leaving the orchestra for the San Francisco Symphony, although the CSOA says let’s all wait and see what happens. The 2015-2016 season — and possibly new Mead composers-in-residence — is to be announced later this month. And the orchestra and Muti are headed to New York’s Carnegie Hall for a three-concert stand at the end of this month.

Chicago Symphony Orchsestr, Riccardo Muti, conductor Yefim Bronfman, piano Repeats today at 1:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan Ave. Tickets: $32-$200 (312) 294-3000, cso.org

The show business is of course about going on as if nothing else is or might be needed, and so it was Thursday night when Muti led the first of his four weeks of winter concerts — two this month and two in February after Carnegie. A big item in the standard repertoire — the Brahms B-Flat Second Piano Concerto, Op. 83, with one of its principal contemporary champions, Tashkent-born American pianist Yefim Bronfman — was paired with a lesser-heard symphony by one of the kings of that form, Tchaikovsky’s G minor First Symphony, “Winter Daydreams,” Op. 13. Execution was uniformly first-rate and at times also moving.

Bronfman is a large man who can play both powerfully and delicately and without stopping or — as Muti was reminded between movements — wanting to stop. There are times in the big concertos that the audience is caught up more in his drive and forward movement than in any interpretation. And then, as in the Brahms, the intricacies of the slow movement come along and the “greatness” melts away from both performer and piece and both become simply beautiful. Principal cello John Sharp was the eloquent partner in this Andante, and, throughout, Muti brought out the counterpoise of the other low strings, horns and bassoon that are too often overlooked by conductors who provide mere accompaniment to the soloist in this piece. Cheers were hearty and well-earned afterwards and Bronfman, who will often give an encore even after a big piece, seemed pleased to let Brahms be enough. The piece goes to New York as well.

The Tchaikovsky is all about late blooming. The composer’s first symphony took two years to be performed whole (in 1868) and then another 15 to be played again, and then revised but still not heard in its final form for another nine years, in 1883, by which time Tchaikovsky knew the symphony game like few others in history. Seen for too long as juvenalia, “Winter Daydreams” — Tchaikovsky’s own name for the piece — was not taken up by the CSO until 1957 and not heard at Ravinia until 1969. Claudio Abbado recorded a very refined Abbado-ish performance with the orchestra in 1991 and David Zinman played it here last six years ago.

Muti more than made the case that a season cycle of Tchaikovsky symphonies such as he is offering — or any real understanding of the composer at all — needs the first three as much as the famous last three. The mysterious sounds of the first movement’s “Winter Journey” show that even at 26 Tchaikovsky had the idea of his sound — both personal and Russian — and ways to bring it out. And his Adagio, “Land of Desolation, Land of Mists,” showed that he already had mastered spinning out those melodies that have outlived him by more than a century and counting. The way he starts with the oboe, then braids the bassoon and flute under and over it before pouring the clarinet on top was worth everything, even the bizarre, galumphing finale march that only a mother at a high school graduation could love.

Andrew Patner is critic-at-large for WFMT-FM.

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