Riccardo Muti, Chicago Symphony Orchestra triumph in glorious Stabat Mater

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Maestro Riccardo Muti conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and soloists Thursday night at Symphony Center. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography

Riccardo Muti has made a point of leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s culminating set of concerts most seasons since he became music director in 2010 – his presence giving them an added and welcome sense of importance.

Sometimes adding to this feeling of an event has been his programming of major choral works like Vivaldi’s Magnificat or Bruckner’s Te Deum or last year’s line-up of excerpts from Italian operatic masterworks.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Riccardo Muti, conductor ★★★★ When: 8 p.m. June 22 and 23; 3 p.m. June 24 Where: Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan Tickets: $36-$250 Info: cso.org

Muti continues that tradition through Sunday with season-ending concerts featuring Rossini’s Stabat Mater – a towering work that the orchestra has not presented in Orchestra Hall since 1972 when another fine Italian conductor, Carlo Maria Giulini, was on the podium.

Superb singing and sumptuous support from the orchestra came together Thursday evening for an experience of rare power and beauty – undoubtedly one of the high points of 2017-18.

Rossini essentially retired from the world of opera at 37 after creating some of the realm’s most enduring masterpieces, but he was unable to completely turn his back on composition. In 1831, a Spanish admirer of his music, Fernández Varela, asked Rossini to write something for him and the composer consented to a setting of the “Stabat mater dolorosa,” a 13th-century poem about Mary’s suffering during the crucifixion of Jesus.

At first, he wrote just six movements of the piece, entrusting another composer to finish it. But he later rejected that composite work and finished the composition himself, adding three sections and a new finale. It was this final 1842 version that the orchestra performed Thursday evening, marking the 150th anniversary of Rossini’s death in 1868.

Much has been made of the operatic quality of the Stabat Mater because of its dramatic scope. But at the same time, it is very much a sacred work in feel and intent, with penetrating emotions and a quiet reverence that were strikingly conveyed in this extraordinary performance.

Riccardo Muti conducts the CSO in Rossini’s Stabat Mater, June 21, 2018, at Symphony Center. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography

Riccardo Muti conducts the CSO in Rossini’s Stabat Mater, June 21, 2018, at Symphony Center. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography

Few conductors are more adept at picking soloists than Muti, and he has assembled a top-rank foursome here, including soprano Krassimira Stoyanova and mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova. Making his Chicago Symphony debut was Russian tenor Dmitry Korchak, who lit up his aria with purity of tone and rhythmic fluidity.

The standout was arguably Eric Owens, whose resonant bass-baritone voice possesses power and uncommon flexibility. He brought haunting vulnerability and simmering intensity to his aria and interchange with the chorus.

But as strong as the soloists undoubtedly were, the true star of this performance was the chorus, which is concluding a seasonlong celebration of its 60th anniversary. As always, it was expertly prepared by its director, Duain Wolfe.

There were high points aplenty but none topped the final choral section before the finale, which calls for ever-changing timbres, phrasing and emphases as the music switches from intimate and closed-in to bold and explosive. The symphony’s stellar chorus delivered it all with impeccable intonation, nuanced expressiveness and unstoppable energy.

Muti has a knack for finding overlooked musical nuggets, and that was certainly the case on the first half with Luigi Cherubini’s Chant sur la mort de Joseph Haydn (Dirge on the Death of Joseph Haydn). Although Beethoven considered him the greatest composer of his generation, Cherubini has largely been forgotten. But the orchestra’s moving, first-ever performance of this handsome work suggests he is ripe for a reassessment.

Cherubini was a fan of Haydn and wrote this piece in 1805 after what turned out later to be a false report of the great composer’s death, and it displays some of the economy and inventiveness heard in Haydn’s music.

Two of the singers from the Stabat Mater, Stoyanova and Korchak, along with tenor Enea Scala turned in effective solo performances, but it was arguably Muti and the orchestra that most impressed. Particularly striking was the long instrumental introduction. It builds from a handful of notes in the French horns, slowly spreads across the ensemble and notably includes an extended showcase for the cellos, whose rich, resonant tone could be heard to advantage.

Providing an ideal opener for this program was Mozart’s Kyrie in D minor, K. 341, a solemn work that runs just a little more than five minutes yet manages to pack quite an emotional punch. And the orchestra and chorus, with lilting high voices among the women, made the most of it.

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.

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