In his final appearance this year, Riccardo Muti led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a tidy program featuring works by Prokofiev, Scriabin and Beethoven. The concert was divided neatly in two, with the 20th century works opening the concert, and Beethoven's Coriolan Overture and Symphony no. 8 in F major providing the finish.

Riccardo Muti © Todd Rosenberg
Riccardo Muti
© Todd Rosenberg

Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony got the evening off to a flying start. The dazzling opening was a herald of fine playing to come. The strings were exceptional in their pure intonation, even during Prokofiev’s more unforgiving and stratospheric writing. Bassoonist Keith Buncke provided  über-articulate accompaniment for apt comedic effect. Consistency of pitch and an unfailingly lovely tone continued to serve the strings, particularly the violins, well in the dreamy second movement. Muti and the CSO then coupled whim with austerity in the Gavotte, playful in the quieter moments, strident at fuller volumes. The symphony concludes at breakneck speed in the molto vivace finale. The flutes pulled off this notoriously tricky movement with ease, as did the entire, nimble woodwind section. It was a thrilling finish to an already masterful performance.

After such a fizzy opening, a slight letdown might have been inevitable no matter the next work. However, Scriabin’s Prometheus provided a particularly heavy return to earth after the heights reached in Prokofiev. Densely orchestrated, this performance included the optional chorus, filling Orchestra Hall to its brim. Punctuating the occasionally ponderous texture was pianist Kirill Gerstein, whose energetic and powerful playing helped provide momentum. Concertmaster Robert Chen also shone in his solo lines, with a rich, full sound that cut through the large orchestra. While plodding at times, the huge personnel count seemed well worth it as Prometheus reached its ecstatic conclusion. After dwelling in his “mystic,” dissonant chord for most of the work, Scriabin signals the end with a rush of sound and a sunny major chord.

If sheer brawn helped energize Prometheus, Muti and a reduced CSO showed that slimmer numbers can prove exciting as well, with two dynamic performances of works by Beethoven. First up was the composer’s Coriolan Overture. Appropriate for a piece inspired by a tragic literary work (von Collins), Coriolan is infused with high drama from the very first chords. These were timed perfectly by Muti and the CSO, and had a pleasing, resonant ring. Whirring, urgent notes in the strings then lend a dark air to the proceedings, before giving way to a more hopeful second theme. This more optimistic music was played with great beauty by guest oboist Sherry Sylar of the New York Philharmonic. In contrast to the command with which it began, Coriolan finished with a hush, rendered with special care by orchestra and conductor.

The final work on the program, Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, was also the highlight of the evening. A vivacious first movement, propelled by energetic string playing, provided a strong start. Most compelling here was the development section, exploring angsty tonal realms. The opening of the second movement afforded the only flub of this performance. Muti seemed to ask for too quiet a dynamic from the woodwinds, causing an uneven section sound for the first measures. This was soon righted, however, and the cheery scherzo could then unwind in playful (yet metronomic!) fashion. Beethoven’s famous use of sforzandos to accent particular notes was portrayed very well in the third movement, creating a topsy-turvy feel. The trio of this movement showcased some very fine individual playing, from the warm sounds of the horn duet to Stephen Williamson’s impossibly quiet and cleverly phrased clarinet lines. A cello quartet provided sensitive, arpeggiated accompaniment throughout. The last movement gave Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony a run for its money in terms of swiftest finale, with the strings whizzing away at a very brisk clip. The last chords, rather comic in their many iterations, were shaped well by Muti, creating a satisfying arc and conclusion.