CSO, Riccardo Muti: a superb Beethoven No. 9 delivers ‘ode to joy at an awful moment of sadness’

– Kyle MacMillan | February 25, 2022

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s set of four performances of Ludwig van Beethoven’s famed Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, were originally scheduled on what seemed to be ordinary February dates.

But fate has a way of intervening sometimes. The timing turned out be unexpectedly momentous, with Thursday evening’s concert taking place on the second day of Russia’s horrific attack on the Ukraine.

There is no more fitting work for this dark moment than this landmark symphony, which sums up Beethoven’s lifelong belief in hope and freedom. It shows the best of what humanity has to offer while the world is witnessing the worst.

As was certainly expected, music director Riccardo Muti offered a few remarks before the concert, eloquently offering up the performance of this uplifting work as a statement of support for the Ukrainian people.

To hearty applause from the audience, he condemned hate and violence and noted the final movement’s setting of Friedrich von Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” saying that “joy without peace cannot exist.”

But perhaps more important than words, Muti and the Chicago Symphony delivered a thrilling, superlative performance — the kind only possible with a world-class orchestra and a top-flight conductor at the absolute height of his powers.

Much deservedly has been written about this influential symphony that broke new ground in multiple ways, none more important than Beethoven’s unprecedented introduction of a chorus and four vocal soloists in the fourth movement.

And even though anyone familiar with this work knows what is coming in the finale, Muti still managed to make that first vocal utterance of bass Tareq Nazmi, who was strong and sure, and the entrance of the chorus seem wonderfully daring and startling.

Especially in this final section, which is a kind of symphony within a symphony, Muti showed himself to be a master dramatist, adroitly managing the sense of unease and anticipation at the outset and then drawing forth the exhilarating full force of the “Ode to Joy.”

It was a milestone evening for the Chicago Symphony Chorus in more than one way. These concerts mark the final time the singers were prepared by Duain Wolfe, who is retiring after 28 years as chorus director and conductor. He is set to be honored after the Sunday afternoon concert, when Muti presents him with the Theodore Thomas Medallion for distinguished artistic service.

Wolfe succeeded the much-esteemed Margaret Hillis who founded the chorus and led it for nearly four decades, upholding her high standards and maintaining its place as one of the top such ensembles in the country.

His distinguished work could be heard Thursday evening in the chorus’ laser-focused unity and precision and its responsive shifts in vocal texture and timbre. It conveyed, for example, a kind of celestial translucence as it softly voiced the ending stanzas, including the words, “Seek him above the starry vault.”

Alongside the chorus, the four soloists — soprano Janai Brugger, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, tenor Issachah Savage and Nazmi — acquitted themselves well in their concentrated yet challenging vocal roles.

While the fourth movement rightly draws the most attention, Muti and the orchestra made sure that the first three movements had plenty to offer in their own right, starting from the first hushed 16 bars — Beethoven’s extraordinary preface to all that would follow.

There was an unsettledness and edginess that subtly suffused the first movement and added an unexpected and provocative flavor, a quality which one could easily surmise derived from the tension in the air from the Ukrainian war.

Muti adroitly captured the constantly changing moods and dynamics, and, perhaps most important, he made a of point keeping the volume and energy contained, not over-selling this section at the expense of what was to come later.

The orchestra offered a buoyant and tautly articulated take on the insistent rhythms of the scherzo, with Muti resisting the temptation to speed and delivering the requisite amount of punch when needed. Then came the orchestra’s nuanced, beautiful take on the slow third movement, with the strings basking in the section’s long, luxuriant lines.

Too often, orchestras add a supposedly complementary work before the Symphony No. 9, which runs about 80 minutes, as a way to stretch or balance the program. But to his credit, Muti didn’t do that, instead just allowing this timeless masterpiece to stand on its own — an ode to joy at an awful moment of sadness.

Kyle MacMillan, Chicago Sun Times, February 25, 2022


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