Despite the distinguished legacy of Mahlerians who have served as past music directors of the Chicago Symphony, Mahler remains largely uncharted territory for Riccardo Muti. After closing the 2013-14 season with an astounding performance of Mahler’s First, his take on the Fourth – the only other Mahler symphony in his active repertoire – was eagerly anticipated. The Fourth is a rather different beast from the cataclysmic monuments that are Mahler’s first three symphonies – classical in its restraint and proportions, yet hardly lacking in profundity as it traces one’s journey to heaven.

Delicate sleigh bells and chirping flutes open the work to a wondrous, bucolic effect as the most genial of themes unfurl with ease. Dynamics erred on the side of piano in this marvel of understatement. A secondary theme was introduced in the oboe by Alex Klein, a former CSO principal making a welcome and auspicious return. This journey into light takes a darker detour in the development, the horns playing a somber theme that looks forward to the funeral march of the Fifth.

The sinister second movement has a rustic, folksy quality, yet so distorted as to enter the realm of the grotesque. Concertmaster Robert Chen portrayed an embodiment of death, using a violin tuned a whole step higher to produce a coarser sound, wie ein Fiedel. He often found himself in dialogue with the sweet tones of Stephen Williamson’s clarinet in a stark juxtaposition of the celestial voices from above. Calmer interludes offered some contrast in the manner of a Ländler, Muti and colleagues wonderfully capturing the spirit of the dance.

The slow movement is marked “serene” and it truly was, a set of variations slowly unfolding into a higher state of bliss, overcoming banality. After a massive climax, the calm returns and the music reaches higher and higher until at last the gates of heaven open before us. The final movement, a setting the Wunderhorn poem Das himmlische Leben, tells of a vision of heaven through the eyes of a child. Against the backdrop of the deep philosophical vision of Mahler’s earlier symphonies, it can at first sound perhaps a bit too precious, what with the angels baking bread and the like, but the blissful innocence of the child is in fact deeply revealing, unencumbered by the trivialities of the rest of the world. And could this be the child from Das irdische Leben who’s desperate cries of “gib mir Brot, sonst sterbe ich” so chillingly came true, now in heaven with an eternity’s supply of bread?

Soprano Rosa Feola would have benefited from sharper German diction and better projection over the orchestra, but nonetheless her tone served the text well, gorgeous and delicate. The orchestra thoughtfully complemented Mahler’s often very detailed word painting. At the end, Muti left us in the radiant meadows of this ineffably beautiful view of heaven. With results like this, let’s hope that late his career Muti plunges deeper into the world of Mahler.

The first half was devoted to the latest installment of Muti’s Shakespeare celebration with Tchaikovsky’s tone poems inspired by The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet. The former began with a sweeping evocation of the sea, and booming brass chorales. Softly singing cellos were heightened by Williamson’s clarinet, and this gave way to a soaring, quintessential Tchaikovsky theme. Eventually matters return to the sea which is given the final word in this broad arch form. While the piece has an abundance of affecting moments, its episodic form lacks the cohesion of Tchaikovsky’s best works. 

Romeo and Juliet needs no introduction of course, and from the eerie chorale that opened, it was clear this was going to be an intense and passionate evocation of this tempestuous love story. Cast in sonata form, the very structure of the work brings to life the feuding families, with much of the conflict suitably coming in the development. Scott Hostetler had a standout English horn solo, and the dramatic and polished playing evidenced how deeply this work is ingrained in the CSO’s DNA, leading up to the final rolls in the timpani which no longer represent a beating heart but a presentiment of death.