The Chicago Symphony officially opened its landmark 125th season Thursday night with music director Riccardo Muti at the helm with cornerstone symphonies of Mozart and Beethoven preceded by a rarely heard tone poem of Liszt. Being the season opener, the performance began with the requisite rendition of The Star Spangled Banner, after which Muti took to the microphone to make some remarks about the need for musicians like the ones on stage to maintain the spiritual well-being of Chicago and the rest of the world – a polemic he has said many times throughout his tenure. Timely, as well, given the current labor dispute the CSO musicians are embattled in.

Liszt’s late tone poem From the Cradle to the Grave is the last of his cycle of thirteen, and came over a quarter century after the preceding. Only Les préludes (a Muti specialty) is performed with any regularity, a shame given that Liszt is often credited as inventor of the genre. Divided into three sections, it begins with The Cradle, opening barely audibly in the strings. The austere writing is typical of Liszt’s late style, almost atonal in its lack of harmonic stability. The central section, The Struggle for Existence, rallies the full orchestra in a series of dramatic outbursts. To the Grave: the Cradle of the Future Life introduces no new themes, but uses the same themes of the opening, transmogrified: in the cycle of life, the cradle has been transfigured to the tomb. This calls to mind the last movement of his Faust symphony in which Mephistopheles parasitically takes all previous themes – a true testament to Liszt’s boundless gift for thematic transformation. Through the twilight years of his long life, Liszt had a nearly obsessive fixation to death, and in this last section, dense Tristan-like harmonies soon evaporate into nothingness and non-being. While this may not be one of Liszt’s finest orchestral scores, Muti (who is roughly the same age as Liszt at the time) was deeply committed, and it’s clearly a piece that has special meaning to him.

The programming choices of this season are rather conservative, so it was fitting in a way for the opening concert to include the two most popular symphonies in the repertoire. While a lack of adventurous programs may be a disappointment to some, the orchestra still has a responsibility to play the bread-and-butter repertoire, and who better a guy than Muti to do it? Like the hand of Midas, all he touches turns to gold as he consistently succeeds in forging fresh interpretations. His take on Mozart’s Symphony no. 40 in G minor was marked by a tension between the Sturm und Drang of the minor key work tempered by the warmth of Muti’s Italianate sensibilities. The Andante was a highlight, which Muti took at a moderate pace, never one to be bogged down in saccharine sentimentality. The delicate melody in the violins was beautifully balanced. Only in Mozart can the major key of the movement have so much melancholy. Muti emphasized the martial qualities of the minuet (not that it was ever a minuet meant to be danced to), and in the finale I was particularly taken by the extraordinary clarity he brought to the fugato section.

What is even left to say about such an iconic masterpiece as Beethoven’s Fifth? Plenty, if you’re Muti, as this was anything but a business as usual approach. The applause hadn’t even finished dying down as he plunged headstrong into the most famous opening in all of music. Harnessing the raw power of the mighty Chicago Symphony, the fiery first movement was tautly constructed, and you could feel a sense of collective breathlessness in the audience. The oboe solo at the end of the development was sumptuously given by Jeffrey Rathbun, guesting from the Cleveland Orchestra. In the slow movement, ample contrast demarcated the two themes in this double variation. The La Folia variation was especially striking, featuring very fine playing in the winds. During the scherzo, Muti often dropped the dynamic level down to a whisper, creating a sense of unease until at long last the blazing C major of the finale finally broke through like a blinding beam of white light. Even at this point, it’s not all victory as the scherzo hauntingly reappears. But of course light triumphs over darkness as the movement launches into the exultant coda – so overblown yet somehow not a note too long. Sitting in the audience, I could feel a palpable sense of unity, the connective tissue being the familiar strains of Beethoven’s music – almost like at a rock concert when all are singing along, yet no words were necessary in this celebration of one of the pinnacles of human achievement.