Having served as principal conductor during the four year interregnum between Barenboim and Muti, Bernard Haitink is certainly a man who knows the Chicago Symphony inside and out. Indeed, he was even offered the music director position prior to Muti, but turned it down due to his age – although now at 87, he is a remarkable picture of strength and vitality. His annual appearances are always season highlights, but this week’s program of Mozart and Strauss proved to be in a category of its own.

Matters began on a modest note in Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 22 in E flat major with soloist Till Fellner. This concerto is a product of the immensely industrious period around the composition of Figaro, and utterly sings with operatic charm. It was also the first of Mozart’s concertos to include clarinets, their mellifluous tone heard to wondrous effect. 

Following the regal opening gesture, the first movement is one of surprising dramatic contrasts. The slow movement is in variations, and the florid playing in the winds was the true standout – especially the duet between bassoonist Keith Buncke and flautist Lorna McGhee, the latter of the Pittsburgh Symphony. Cast in C minor, these variations anticipate the dramatic sweep of Beethoven. Though moderately paced, the finale was one of pure joy. John Bruce Yeh’s clarinet made for a fine complement to Fellner’s sprightly fingers. Fellner shone the most in the first and third movement cadenzas (respectively by Paul Badura-Skoda and Johann Nepomuk Hummel), his crystalline, elegant playing recalling that of his erstwhile mentor Alfred Brendel.

If there is one composer associated with the CSO above all others, surely it is Richard Strauss. His tone poems are a cornerstone of its repertoire, and consistently performed with stellar results. Scored for a titanic orchestra of 125 players, including 20(!) horns, Wagner tubas, heckelphone, four species of clarinets, wind machine, thunder machine, cowbells, and organ, Eine Alpensinfonie is conceived in 22 interconnected sections spanning the continuum of nearly an hour. It proved to be Strauss’ final contribution to the tone poem, and indeed, what could possibility be left to write in the medium after such a behemoth? The CSO’s peerless orchestral virtuosity was in full force, and the sight of scores of strings playing perfectly in sync was stunning to behold.

Eerie sonorities in the low brass depicted the opening Nacht, and introduced some of the recurring thematic ideas before opening up into a radiant and brilliant sunrise (though admittedly only second best to the sunrise in Zarathustra). Oddly enough, the sunrise is depicted by way of a descending gesture, but hardly any foreboding was to be felt in this vividly warm playing. Strauss takes us up the mountain with nearly obsessive attention to detail, and under Haitink’s baton it felt incredibly real, as if we had really been transported to the Alps. The cascading effects of Am Wasserfall were picturesque, and a calming interlude was given in Auf der Alm, the cowbells leaving little room for guesswork as to the subject matter.

At last we reached the peak in the exultant Auf dem Gipfel, with Michael Henoch’s oboe solo broken and disjointed, depicting one’s breathlessness at altitude. In true Romantic fashion, a dramatic and passionate Vision is had atop the mountain. The organ makes an appearance to depict a layer of mist (Nebel steigen auf) as the scene is ominously obscured by clouds. Perhaps inevitably, a mighty storm comes, and this was the evening’s dramatic highpoint as cataclysmic waves of sound nearly shook the foundation of the hall.

Calm returns, and a dialogue between organ and horn in Ausklang was especially striking – principal horn this week was assumed by Richard Sebring of the Boston Symphony who conquered the treacherous horn writing with stunning aplomb. Strauss leads us in back into Nacht, where the arduous journey began, now diluted to contemplative silence. Haitink’s penchant for understatement paid off in the quieter moments, which had their intended philosophical depth, and although Strauss and understatement might seem mutually exclusive, it kept the dramatic parts from being excessively crass and bombastic in what was nonetheless an earth-shattering, monumental performance.