After leading the Chicago Symphony on a highly-praised European tour in January, Riccardo Muti is back in town. While Thursday’s program followed the tried-and-true model of overture-concerto-symphony, there was otherwise nothing routine about the evening as Muti is uncanny in his ability to consistently cultivate a very high level of playing.

Yefim Bronfman with the CSO © Todd Rosenberg
Yefim Bronfman with the CSO
© Todd Rosenberg

An effective curtain-raiser was to be had in Rossini’s overture to Semiramide, the type of Italian repertoire in which Muti reigns supreme. One of Rossini’s lengthiest overtures, its weight and proportion are apposite as per the seriousness of the opera – indeed, Rossini is often unfairly remembered as only a composer of comic opera. David Herbert opened the work with a roll on the timpani and matters built to a brass chorale, not altogether polished but nonetheless an arresting effect. More exuberant music followed in due course, brimming with Rossini’s characteristic repeated volleys of notes and spirited crescendos. The principal woodwinds were in fine form, with Jennifer Gunn’s piccolo a standout. The overture concluded with a vivacity that could bring a smile to the face of even the most dour listener.

This season’s exploration of the complete Beethoven piano concertos saw its next installment, bringing forth Yefim Bronfman in the Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major. Bronfman’s solo introduction was given with the utmost tenderness, belying his imposing physical stature. The orchestra responded in kind, though I found the pair of horns a notch too loud. While Bronfman has established himself as a peerless interpreter of the likes of Bartók and Prokofiev in their percussive proclivities, this was a chance to see an entirely different side of him, here a veritable gentle giant.

He drew a gorgeous tone out of the instrument, with careful attention to every nuance and an almost liquid fluidity of playing, as if gliding on the sumptuous tapestries of a silken magic carpet. This made for quite an interesting contrast to Emanuel Ax’s pearly performance on the same stage not a year ago. In the cadenza, perhaps Beethoven’s most ambitious, Bronfman held the audience spellbound as he probed its dramatic depths. The prayer-like slow movement was noted for Bronfman’s purity of sound in an enigmatic, otherworldly dialogue with the orchestra. On the other end of the spectrum was the finale, beginning innocently in the strings that became increasingly insistent in this music of jocular abandon.

Although the last to be published, Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony was chronologically the second of his five mature symphonies. Originally commissioned for the tricentennial of the Augsburg Confession (and subsequent establishment of the Lutheran faith), the symphony makes overt Protestant allusions in the first and last movements, hence its epithet. It opened with a solemn seriousness of purpose, and seemingly out of nowhere came the heavenly chord progression of the Dresden Amen in the high strings. Following the second presentation of the Amen, the movement proper began, exuding the severity of religious discipline. A choir of winds in the development resounded almost like an organ, providing another sense of ceremony.

While the first movement reached heavenward, the second was as worldly as it gets, bursting with the elfin charm we now know as quintessential Mendelssohn, Muti’s conducting oftentimes suggesting a rustic dance. The brief slow movement was a mournful song, the singing lines beautifully presented in the strings. There was certainly no religious equivocation in the finale, boldly initiating with Luther’s hymn “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott” in the flute by principal Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson. This formed the basis of an intricate and learned fugato; the contrapuntal lines cleanly negotiated, under Muti’s hands it skirted the dry and academic in a conclusion of orchestral brilliance and vigor.