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CSO ably swings from swirling dances to intense symphony

David Fray is soloist in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Thursday in Orchestra Hall.

David Fray is soloist in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Thursday in Orchestra Hall. | Todd Rosenberg

What is the relationship between music and politics? Should an artist pursue his own vision even during times of sociopolitical upheaval and violence?

These are the questions that composer Paul Hindemith confronted after Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933. And they are at the heart of his Symphony, “Mathis der Maler (Mathis the Painter),” which put a bold, contrasting exclamation point Thursday evening on the first of a pair of Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts.

Although the entire more-or-less chronological program fell solidly in the Austro-Germanic tradition, these works spanned more than 130 years and covered a wide range of styles and moods. All were familiar stalwarts except for “Mathis der Maler” — an undeniably milestone work but one that is heard less frequently.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Riccardo Muti, conductor; David Fray, pianist
When: 1:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan
Tickets: $37-$252
Info: cso.org
David Fray will play Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 at the CSO’s annual Symphony Ball concert at 7 p.m. Saturday, which also will feature a reprise of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances.

Music director Riccardo Muti and the orchestra offered a probing, intense reading of this work. Written in 1933-34 with the elements of an opera Hindemith was writing on the same subject at the time, it has something of an avant-garde, unsettled feel with its stretched tonalities and sometimes competing musical lines.

In part because his wife was of partial Jewish ancestry, the composer fell in and out favor with Nazi leaders, his work ultimately being labeled “degenerate.” In 1938, he finally fled Germany, traveling to Switzerland and ultimately settling in the United States.

Because of these struggles, he came to identify with Mathias Grünewald, who got caught up in a 16th-century peasant’s revolt after the Reformation. “Mathis der Maler” is based on three of the panels from the artist’s celebrated Isenheim altarpiece.

The piece offered a jolting juxtaposition to the four Hungarian Dances by Johannes Brahms — Nos. 1, 3, 10 and 5 — that were paired with it on the second half. There is not a hint of angst in these swirling, gypsy-influenced audience-pleasers, which Muti and the orchestra served up with free-flowing, propulsive ebullience.

The first half was devoted to bedrock works by Ludwig van Beethoven, starting with the Overture to “Egmont,” Op. 84. The composer wrote incidental music for Goethe’s play “Egmont,” the story of a 16th-century count who leads a heroic fight against the Spanish oppression of the Netherlands.

Muti and the orchestra captured the urgency and full dramatic sweep that Beethoven manages to pack into less than 10 minutes — the overture’s impact only enhanced by being bookended with “Mathis der Maler,” with which it shares some notable similarities.

Rounding out the evening was a strikingly distinctive and eminently pleasing performance of the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37, featuring 37-year-old French pianist David Fray. Ably complemented and supported by Muti, he delivered a buoyantly eloquent, often understated interpretation that drew an extraordinarily nuanced array of colors from the piano.