By Kyle MacMillan |for the Sun-Times
One of the appealingly offbeat threads running through the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s repertory this season and next is music director Riccardo Muti’s commitment to present all five of the little-performed, idiosyncratic symphonies by Alexander Scriabin.
The complicated Russian composer, who died at age 45 in 1915, is often overlooked today. His own biographer notably wrote, “No one was more famous during their lifetime, and few were more quickly ignored after death.” But the inventiveness and substance of his best works are impossible to deny.
In February, Muti, a longtime Scriabin champion, offset the composer’s Second Symphony with Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6. The maestro returned Thursday evening, beginning his final CSO residency of 2014-15 with another pairing of the two composers’ works.
Recommended Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Riccardo Muti, conductor 8 p.m. June 12 and 13 Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan $33-$220 (312) 294-3000; cso.org
This time, he brought together Scriabin’s “The Poem of Ecstasy,” Op. 54, and Tchaikovsky’s “Manfred” Symphony, Op. 58 – written about 20 years apart. The combination made sense for many reasons: Both are programmatic and inspired by poems, and both deal in a profound way with searches for meaning and have certain sexual overtones.
Although Scriabin’s “Ecstasy” (1905-08) is considered to be his fourth and best-known symphony, it is really more of a symphonic poem, which is written in one movement that lasts about 20 minutes. Built around what the composer called the “mystic chord,” based on the interval of the fourth, the piece was inspired by one of the self-obsessed composer’s own poems and a hybrid belief system that drew on Hinduism, theosophy and Nietzsche.
Barely contained in this big, grandiose work, with augmented forces including organ and eight French horns, are moments that are alternately grandiose and delicate, emphatic and ethereal – all punctuated with fevered bursts of ecstasy.
Obviously intensely invested in this piece, Muti brought each section, each emotion to rich, almost extravagant, expression in this no-holds-barred interpretation, managing to not just hold together all the competing voices but bring a sense of clarity and logic to the sometimes chaotic whole.
Although Scriabin never managed to achieve the all-encompassing artistic vision or sonic revolution he was seeking, he did manage to call forth extraordinary, penetrating soundscapes in this piece. And they were sumptuously realized by Muti and the orchestra’s resplendent brass, full-bodied strings and expressive winds.
There were solo moments for virtually every section in the orchestra, from the fervent bass-drum rolls of Vadim Karpinos to the stand-out playing of Christopher Martin, whose principal trumpet took the role of the soul or ego in Scriabin’s cosmic vision.
Rounding out the program was the “Manfred” Symphony (1885), which is based on Byron’s poem of the same name. Much as he did in “Ecstasy,” Muti mapped a lucid, coherent path through this vast, hourlong romantic work and brought it vividly to life like a master storyteller.
Setting the tone for the piece is the grand first movement, which Tchaikovsky considered to be among his finest writing. It opens almost mournfully, with the little-heard, deep-voiced bass clarinet, handsomely played by assistant principal John Bruce Yeh, taking centerstage as the reeds are set against the lower strings.
Muti and the orchestra powerfully captured the drama and sweep of this section, rendering its bold gestures with a cinematic flair and, as in “Ecstasy,” delivering a wonderfully full-flavored sound, especially the muscular brass.
The rest of the work is a multifaceted, ever-contrasting emotional journey, as Tchaikovsky musically relates Manfred’s story, with the orchestra conveying every high and low of the narrative in moving and thrilling fashion.