One of the more intriguing elements of Riccardo Muti’s Chicago tenure has been his effort to resurrect the neglected byways of the orchestral literature from his Italian homeland. The first half of this week’s program was dedicated to just that in works by Alfredo Catalani and Giuseppe Martucci. Both were pieces which the orchestra had never performed before, and the latter served as a platform for the long-awaited CSO debut of Joyce DiDonato.

Opera buffs will surely admire Catalani as the composer of La Wally, but nowadays one would be hard-pressed to find a performance of even that, much less the remainder of his fairly substantial oeuvre. His Contemplazione proved to be an attractive work, certainly worthy of at least an occasional hearing. Woodwinds and brass added heft but the orchestration heavily focused on the strings, the arching, cantabile lines written as only a composer of Italian opera could do. After some developmental material, Muti held matters frozen and spellbound in an extended fermata before the doleful yearning of the opening returned.

Martucci was the odd composer of 19th-century Italy who never wrote an opera, and his La canzone dei ricordi (“The Song of Memories”) is one of only a handful of works from his pen to be written for voice. Martucci has been featured on Muti programs before, in the extravagant Second Piano Concerto, as well as the lovely Notturno which the CSO took with them on one of their acclaimed European tours. In spite of his Italian origins, Martucci was a deep admirer of both Brahms and Wagner, and La canzone dei ricordi bears this influence in its rich orchestrations and colorful harmonic palette. Many of the work’s finest moments were to be found in the orchestral postludes, which served as a connective tissue to the succeeding song, bolstering its cyclical nature.

Ample word-painting was to be heard, for instance the playful harp of Sarah Bullen in “Cantava il ruscello la gaia canzone”, depicting the radiance of spring. A dialogue between oboist Alex Klein and clarinetist Stephen Williamson opened “Flor di ginestra”, anticipating the song’s discursive structure. The melancholy of “Un vago mormorio mi giunge” wouldn’t have been out of place in a Puccini opera, but the most operatic selection was the penultimate song, “Al folto bosco, placida ombria”. Its extended scale allowed for the development of a real sense of drama, and one’s interest was heightened by a lush chromaticsm that bore the stamp of Tristan und Isolde (of which Martucci conducted the Italian première). DiDonato was the star, her naturally flowing Italian diction, deft attention to detail, and gorgeously refined tone making for a notable performance. Nonetheless, I’m not convinced this is a score which the CSO needs to revisit anytime soon, but Muti and DiDonato are to be commended for their fine advocacy of a forgotten work.

Muti has just begun his seventh season as music director; last week’s program was anchored by Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, this week’s by Beethoven’s Seventh – coincidence or not?  Numerological concerns notwithstanding, Muti’s forays into Beethoven consistently prove to be major events, and I do hope we have the chance to see him conduct a complete Beethoven symphony cycle. The Seventh is certainly familiar territory for the CSO, having just performed it at the close of the Ravinia season, barely over a month ago. With its generally light textures and emphasis of dance-like rhythms, it felt like a logical continuation of the program’s Italian opening.

The opening movement’s introduction was sufficiently grand, before Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson’s flute plunged headstrong into the energetic first theme. Indeed, all the principal wind players were on top form. Muti resisted the temptation to treat the second movement as a dirge, and matters moved along at a moderate pace. At times he used his left hand to demonstrate the long, bowing motion he wanted from the string players, in other places he stood almost completely motionless – I continue to be amazed at how much Muti can communicate with such economy of motion. The scherzo was given a restless vigor, and suitable contrast was to be had in trio with the mellifluous tones of the winds and horns. The level of vigor was ramped up another notch for the finale, Muti often raising his arms as if in triumph. After the unevenness of the first half, this performance was greeted with a well-deserved, tumultuous ovation.