Riccardo Muti made a bold claim in a televised interview on Tuesday, ahead of his three-night stint opening the Carnegie Hall’s season. Asked by Charlie Rose about the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Muti suggested that this band, of which he has been Music Director since 2010, was the best in the world – before hurriedly correcting himself and ranking it alongside the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics in the very highest echelon.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on Thursday 4 October © Todd Rosenberg
Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on Thursday 4 October
© Todd Rosenberg

It was a comment that might have caused a few New Yorkers to titter – without good reason – but this second concert of three showed that Muti might have been displaying not hubris but an apt confidence. Helmed for the last two decades by a combination of Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, and Bernard Haitink, the CSO continues to possess a tone and vigour ideally straddling the Atlantic: the strings produce a sound coated with sheen but also draw upon reserves of more Germanic darkness; the winds are mellow but have a bite; and the brass play with typically American bombast but balance it precisely. Live, this is a far more involving sound than is routinely heard on these shores, and it balances Muti’s precise direction well.

Predictably, it was in this concert’s opening Wagner that the Chicago sound was displayed to most convincing effect. It opened fast and jagged, with a tone clearer than any Norwegian waters the Dutchman might sail on. Unanimity of attack was impressive; so too were impeccable balances. That, perhaps, was to be expected from this conductor, whose sharply delineated tempi for individual themes not only underlined the true function of Wagner’s overture but drew proper attention to harmonic development. That said, Muti’s way with rubato was perhaps a little much, occasionally obscuring a general underlying tempo, but the worlds of the Dutchman and Senta are hardly settled and this is early, not late, Wagner.

The Wagner matched well with Franck’s Symphony in D minor, even if this concert, like the mini-residence as a whole, featured repertoire more flirtatious than meaty: Carl Orff, early Wagner, Franck, Dvořák’s Fifth Symphony rather than the more common later four, a Martucci vignette, and Respighi to close. Franck’s 1888 symphony is a beguiling mix of French cyclic form, a three-movement symphonic structure and a design that looks back to Beethoven’s Ninth (or, perhaps more properly, Brahms’ First). Again, there was much that was excellent, particularly in the probing, repeated introductions and the two electric transitions out of them, much as on Pierre Monteux’s recording of the work with this orchestra. There was great intensity, too, in the torrent of noise that closes the first movement, and in the gradual buildups in the last, in which earlier themes return and are transformed. The sprawling slow-movement-cum-scherzo hung together less convincingly, its abrupt and malcoordinated pizzicato strings jarring with the cultivated sound produced elsewhere. Scott Hostetler’s cor anglais solo was as judicious here as a similar moment in the Wagner had been. The power conjured by Muti’s closing pages, however, was enough to mitigate quibbles.

The syncopations of the Franck’s final movement were aptly prefigured in Mason Bates’ Alternative Energy, which closed the first half. Bates is both a composer and a DJ, and his Alternative Energy is a fusion of neo-Romanticism and electronic sampling, forced through hip-hop and techno rhythms, and linked in classic tone-poem fashion through two idées fixes, a mechanistic crank and a homespun motif for solo violin. The piece, constructed in two movements of two parts each, sketches the use of energy in four different eras – Henry Ford’s farm (or junkyard) in 1896, Chicago in 2012, Xian Jian in 2112, and a rainforested Reykjavik in 2222. The piece’s marriage of the classical orchestra, percussion batteries, and dance is much like that of Thomas Adès’ Asyla, but seems more natural than even that, with propulsive rhythms layered atop one another, and used as developmental cells in symphonic manner.

Composing in neon tones, Bates has achieved something special here. His electronics reverberate spatially, and his samples of whirrings and zoomings from Chicago’s Fermilab particle accelerator stay just (albeit barely) on the right side of chintzy. At times the music is unvarying, taking too long to develop even though the sounds are enticing, particularly when the orchestra is not backed by heavier beats. But when the Xian Jian section builds into hardcore techno Bates is able to conjure a blistering concatenation of rhythms over wind ostinati and insistent bass. The collapse into the Reykjavik nightmare, blipping with static, works neatly as primal birdsong emerges above more euphoric, anthemic rhythms indicating a return to older, easier forms of community. By now, although the motivic cells suggest that the fixation with energy characteristic of Ford’s farm remains, the harmonies go nowhere. A cautionary tale? Certainly, and anything that gets the exquisitely tailored Riccardo Muti moving like he’s in an East Berlin club at 5 in the morning deserves as wide an audience as possible.