The final four weeks of the Chicago Symphony’s landmark 125th season have been devoted to cornerstone repertoire from the Austro-Germanic canon, and the concluding weekend saw Riccardo Muti lead two late masterworks by Anton Bruckner. Both were works which the CSO gave US premières – a connective theme of much of the programming choices this season – under the baton of first music director and avid Brucknerian Theodore Thomas. The Te Deum has been in the CSO’s repertoire as far back as 1892, and the Ninth Symphony was first introduced to American audiences in 1904, albeit in Ferdinand Löwe’s radically truncated edition.

Riccardo Muti, soloists, Chicago Symphony and Chorus © Todd Rosenberg Photography
Riccardo Muti, soloists, Chicago Symphony and Chorus
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

Bruckner never lived to complete his Ninth Symphony, however the three extant movements are his crowning achievement and embody a coherent arch-form in their own right. His massive sense of proportion is apparent from the onset as inchoate tremolos in the strings unravel only gradually before coalescing into the first recognizable theme, appropriately solemn as per the score’s feierlich indication. The following gesang theme displayed Bruckner’s lyrical gifts in the lushness of the CSO strings, and the movement’s many climaxes were marked by stentorian brass and the keenly judged intensity of timpanist David Herbert. Even in this vast canvas wherein time is often suspended in an epic stasis, never for a moment did it feel directionless under Muti’s ideal pacing. The CSO players offered the gold standard of technical precision, with notable guest oboist Richard Woodhams from the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Clocking in at ten minutes, the substantial scherzo can feel like a mere trifle situated between the two stone pillars of the outer movements. It was played with vigor and fire until the contrasting trio, in the distant key of F sharp major, which burst with elfin charm and earthly delights before returning to macabre of the opening. If the scherzo is demonic, surely the Adagio is the music of the angels in what became the composer’s unintentional farewell to life. It began with rich Wagnerian chromaticism before the first statement of the hypnotically beautiful Dresden Amen – it should be remembered that Bruckner went to Bayreuth for the première of Parsifal, and indeed the sacred spirit of that work wanders through this symphony. Four of the eight horns doubled on Wagner tubas in this movement, adding warmth to the already rich color palette. The atmosphere Muti created was truly heavenly, and Orchestra Hall basked in a radiant glow.

Keenly aware of his own mortality, Bruckner knew he wouldn’t finish his final symphony, and suggested the earlier Te Deum as a possible conclusion. It’s a stretch as the pieces are worlds apart, and Bruckner even frantically attempted to write some transition material. An intermission was given between the works, refuting any pretensions of a completed Ninth with the Te Deum instead offered as something of a pendant to the symphony, but it nonetheless presented a vague vision of what perhaps could have been. 

The quartet of vocal soloists was comprised of soprano Erin Wall, her sumptuous operatic tone a standout, mezzo-soprano Okka von der Damerau who offered fitting contrast to Wall, tenor Steve Davislim, handling the lion’s share of the solo writing with aplomb, and the deep heft of bass-baritone Eric Owens, substituting for an indisposed Christof Fischesser, providing luxury casting indeed, and a fine appetizer for Owens’ role debut as Wotan in Lyric Opera’s first installment of the Ring cycle this fall.

The Te Deum opens dramatically with the ancient sounds of bare fifths contrasted with a massive Wagernian orchestra and choir, the latter once again proving themselves to be the CSO’s crown jewel. Fine balance was achieved from all parties involved in this, one of few choral works from the mature Bruckner. The more reflective moments were heightened by the high-reaching solo passages from concertmaster Robert Chen, but the overall mood was extrovert and exultant to bring the CSO’s watershed season to a fittingly glorious close.