Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a free concert at the Apostolic Church of God Thursday evening. I Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

CSO and Riccardo Muti go back in time

Riccardo Muti has brought his Fabulous Musical Time Travel Machine to Orchestra Hall for the second consecutive week to close out his fall Chicago Symphony Orchestra residency.

Last week brought a recreation of the CSO’s centennial salute to Franz Liszt. This week offers an even rarer and more impressive feat: a near-exact retake of what proved to be the last concert and public appearance of the great composer-conductor Gustav Mahler. In 1911, three months before his death in Vienna just shy of 51, Mahler led the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in a program of Italian composers who were his near contemporaries along with Felix Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony (substituted for one work found wanting and one unfinished commission).

It’s a discussion for another day about why Muti’s own repertoire of and interest in Mahler the composer is so limited, a particular oddity for a music director of the CSO, a platinum Mahler orchestra. But Muti’s respect for Mahler the conductor of operas and orchestras and, as he said several times from the stage Thursday night, “the musician” is great. The symbolism of Mahler’s musical life coming to an end with a program of then-new orchestral works from Muti’s homeland, a country not generally known for its contributions to the concert hall, surely plays some part here. There was another lesson, too, and one where Muti was also on the learning end. In podium remarks he said he was sure he was offering a service “to bring these piece here for the first time.” In fact, he found, all of the pieces had been played before, and three of them twice!, by the CSO’s omnivorous second music director (1905-42), Frederick Stock.

As with the Liszt program, this was also a chance for the audience to get a better sense of what concert life used to be. The program was long, greatly varied and had a structure unheard of today: an overture and a symphony before intermission, a big piano concerto followed by a shorter modern-oriented work and winding up with a mid-length dance suite for string orchestra after.

Leone Sinigaglia, from a refined old Jewish family, was the only composer on the program to live past 1925, but he became a victim of the Nazis at 75, dying of a heart attack while being arrested by the Gestapo in his native Turin in 1944. His 1907 overture to “La baruffe chiozzote” (“The Scuffle in Chioggia”) was a sweet sound companion to a Goldoni comedy.

Chicago has a good history with Mendelssohn, which Muti continues especially in this beloved work of the 1830s. Along with bringing little-known scores to light and life, Muti re-animates oft-played works with elegance, verve and precision. As for Mendelssohn scherzos, there are two kinds of orchestras: the one with Mathieu Dufour as principal flute, and all the others.

Tell folks you are going to hear “Martucci’s Second Piano Concerto” and you’d have a lot of them scratching their heads. A great keyboard virtuoso of the late 19th century, as a composer Muti’s fellow southern Italian looked north of the Alps and away from the opera house for his inspiration and calling. Brahms was a particular idol, and this massive, 45-minute, 1884-85 B-flat minor work firmly follows the two Brahms masterpieces of the genre. There is more to this piece than in many other neglected or abandoned works of the period, and there’s plenty foreshadowing of early Rachmaninoff, too. And Bavarian pianist Gerhard Oppitz, making a very belated CSO debut, played it as if it were Brahms and with great mastery. But the work lacks enough originality and distinct melodies or invention to rejoin the standard repertoire.

Ferrucio Busoni is and was the most known of the 20th century composers on this program; his 1909 “Berceuse elegiaque,” a lullaby of mourning for the artist’s mother, was the night’s strongest individual work. Mahler’s Carnegie concert was its world premiere, and its movements away from tonality and its alluring gauziness of sound still cause goosebumps.

Organist Marco Enrico Bossi’s Goldoni-inspired entry, “Intermezzi Goldoniani” (1905), is a buoyant light suite of dances for strings. Despite this, and despite the one concession to time that called for two of six sections to be cut, when Muti faced the audience sans microphone and said, “This was the very last music that Gustav Mahler conducted” just before giving a frenzied downbeat, the history of the evening became fully present.

Recommended. Repeats at 8:30 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Center. Details at cso.org.

Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).

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