The aggressive dance between the Chicago Symphony and Riccardo Muti continued last night, as Muti again built a program out of colorful twentieth century (mostly) works. The program of Tchaikovsky, Hindemith and Scriabin could just as well have turned into a chance for the orchestra to show off its ensemble precision and bone-crunching volume, but Muti dialed it down into an exquisitely musical performance.
Hindemith's suite from the ballet Nobilissima Visione received a lusty reading, with the strings producing a warm, rich and deep tone. Hindemith's homophonic writing has never sounded so Straussian, and the ecstatic pealing of the winds and brass heightened that effect. And that was the problem, since a composer as contrapuntal as Hindemith comes off as turgid with that level of throb. The fife and drum dialogue in the second movement was played with pleasing charm by pixieish flutist Jennifer Gunn and Cynthia Yeh, the CSO's new principal percussionist. It had the necessary clarity the rest of the work lacked.
Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy ended the program, and let the orchestra splash around in its gaudy variety. Muti, as always, kept a tight rein on events, and managed some truly blistering climaxes, but even he can't get around the fact that the Poem of Ecstasy is almost entirely effects in search of a cause.
Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 ("Pathetique") began the program, and what seemed a good on idea on paper proved less ideal upon execution. Tchaikovsky's monumental elegy preceded celebrations of ecstasy that were painted on smaller canvasses, and it felt as if you were looking at a giant fresco, then turned a corner and had to screw up your eyes to absorb two watercolors. Not to mention the strain the program order places on the brasses, who have to shoulder through the symphony, which is a big blow, and then turn around and bang through the Poem of Ecstasy, which is another big blow. Endurance audibly—barely, but still—became an issue for a few of the players last night. If there's time to reprint the European tour programs, they should think about reversing the order.
This program should especially be flipped if Muti and the orchestra deliver what they did last night in Tchaikovsky's final symphony. The doom-laden opening entered sparingly, and the final decrescendo faded with the dying light of a candle recently extinguished. (While the CSO has always long been praised for its loudness, it can also play at ear-stretching levels of softness.) Along the way, Muti kept the energy level high by continually encouraging players to move phrases beyond the bar lines. Together, they uncovered the tragic nature of this work without any sentimentality or displays of brute force, or drawing any attention to their considerable ensemble greatness. I can't imagine more than a hundred musicians gathered in one place all displaying such selfless devotion to a score.