Riccardo Muti, CSO triumph with Tchaikovsky’s epic ‘Manfred’ Symphony

With Muti’s departure as music director at the end of June coming ever closer, each of his appearances with the orchestra seems to carry added meaning and emotion, and it certainly felt that way Thursday.

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Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony Thursday night at Symphony Center. 

Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Manfred” Symphony Thursday night at Symphony Center.

Todd Rosenberg Photography

Conductor Riccardo Muti returned to Orchestra Hall Thursday evening for his first concerts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra there since leading the orchestra on a Jan. 21-Feb. 3 tour to the western United States and Toronto.

With Muti’s departure as Zell music director at the end of June coming ever closer, each of his appearances with the orchestra seems to carry a bit of added meaning and emotion, and it certainly felt that way Thursday.

For this program, which will be repeated through Saturday in Orchestra Hall and once in Kansas City, Mo., Muti chose two 19th century works that are unquestioned staples of the repertory yet are played less frequently than other, more familiar compositions in that category.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra — Julia Fischer, violin; Riccardo Muti, conductor

CSO review

When: 1:30 p.m. Feb. 24 and 8 p.m. Feb. 25

Where: Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan Ave.

Tickets: $55-$399

Info: cso.org

The evening’s showstopper was Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s nearly hourlong “Manfred” Symphony, Op. 58, a programmatic 1885 blockbuster based on a supernatural poem by Lord Byron about a guilt-ridden nobleman who wanders the Alps and faces down a series of seven spirits.

This massive, almost overblown work, which calls for augmented musical forces, including pipe organ in the fourth movement, is the absolute apogee of 19th century Romanticism at its most grandiose.

It is not to every taste. But Muti, who previously programmed the symphony in 2015, clearly revels in this tumultuous, psychological work with its opulent melodies and intersecting, overlapping and contradictory emotions.

With the conductor sometimes asking for even more with an upraised left fist, he and the CSO delivered an all-out, no-holds-barred, leave-everything-on-the-field performance that was quite simply thrilling, and the audience roared its approval at the end.

Setting the tone for all that was to come was the CSO’s all-encompassing take on the sweeping first movement, with its surging and ebbing cross-currents of chorale-like woodwinds, brass blasts, bass-drum rolls, voluptuous strings and lilting harps.

Violinist Julia Fischer was the featured soloist with the CSO in a performance of Schumann’s Violin Concerto led by Zell Music Director Riccardo Muti on Thursday night at Symphony Center.

Violinist Julia Fischer was the featured soloist with the CSO in a performance of Schumann’s Violin Concerto led by Zell Music Director Riccardo Muti on Thursday night at Symphony Center.

© Todd Rosenberg Photography

The danger with such grand gestures and massive muscularity, of course, is that the performance might devolve into excess and even caricature. But Muti had the discipline and awareness to walk right up to that line but not cross it.

The “Manfred” Symphony is a showpiece for musicians across the orchestra, and the CSO players made the most of their moments in the spotlight. Among them: the indispensable barrel tones of guest bass clarinetist Pavel Vinnitsky, the big, dramatic combinations of principal timpanist David Herbert and the expressive solos of principal French hornist David Cooper.

Offering a wonderful counter-balance to the amplitude of the “Manfred” Symphony was the first-half offering — Robert Schumann’s Violin Concerto in D Minor, a much more modest and understated yet still radiant expression of the Romantic spirit.

This performance featured the wonderful German violinist Julia Fischer, making her first appearance with the CSO since 2016, a return that was long overdue. This first-rate soloist’s playing is marked by a refined vibrancy and fetchingly burnished, full-voiced tone.

Muti and Fischer seemed completely in sync in this work, bringing nuanced dynamics and a restraint, at times even a kind of gentleness to the opening movement, perfectly capturing Schumann’s tempo marking — “In powerful motion, but not too fast.”

The spellbinding, slow second movement had a lovely intimate, chamber-music feel, with Fischer nicely blending with the orchestra’s strings and adding poignant solo work of her own. The third movement allowed room for some showy flourishes, which she dashed off with aplomb, but it, too, stayed within the contained yet still ebullient feel of the rest of the work.

This winning performance made it hard to believe that Schumann’s wife Clara and close friend and violinist Joseph Joachim suppressed the concerto after his 1856 death, concerned that mental illness had tainted the composer’s last, large-scale completed piece. Amazingly, the CSO didn’t first perform it until 1996.

After the orchestra’s three performances of these two works this weekend in Orchestra Hall, it will repeat the lineup Sunday at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Mo. Then, Muti and the CSO travel to Florida for four concerts with other programs. Muti will next appear in Chicago with the orchestra May 11-13 and May 16.


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