In an American musical landscape where several top orchestras are led by still-youngish conductors who need to prove their ability to master and to bring fresh insights to the standard repertoire, a musical statesman such as Riccardo Muti can afford to focus on just his favorite works. His second consecutive evening leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall featured exclusively the music of Sergei Prokofiev – for many years one of Maestro Muti's composers of choice. He picked the lesser-played Symphony no. 3 and he offered the public his own compilation of excerpts from Romeo and Juliet.

Riccardo Muti conducts at Carnegie Hall
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

The ten selected numbers were all included in the two suites that Prokofiev himself put together before the ballet’s première. Muti bookended the central movements from the Suite no. 1 with the first two and, respectively, next three from Suite no. 2. Irrespective of how one feels about picking fragments of an extant composition and rearranging them in a different order, there was little doubt that the conductor was in full command of Prokofiev’s idiom. His approach emphasized the post-romantic élan palpable in those splendid melodic lines that could rival with anything composed by Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov (Romeo at Juliet’s tomb). Muti and the CSO painted the festive moments in beautifully vivid colors (Minuet) and used rhythmic incisiveness to underline the drama (The Death of Tybalt). From the powerful dissonances at the beginning of Montagues and Capulets to the pianissimo at the end of Romeo at Juliet’s tomb there were multiple exquisite moments during this rendition: the poco più tranquillo flute solo in the first movement (an overall excellent Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson), the last bars of Masks, the intensity of the legatos in Balcony Scene and Love Dance, the piccolo and the viola solos in Romeo and Juliet before parting. Overall, connections with images of Romeo and Juliet's choreographic gestures were mostly severed. Listening to the music associated with the heroine, one could barely conjure up the ethereality of, say, Alina Cojocaru. The suite – colorful, dramatic, employing a full orchestra with occasionally blasting brass – was a treated as purely symphonic work.

Riccardo Muti conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

Evidently, an operatic approach was much better suited for the Symphony no. 3, in C minor, a work for which Prokofiev reused the musical material from his, as yet unstaged, opera The Fiery Angel, about a nun’s mystical visions and sexual obsessions. Interestingly enough, even if themes and orchestration elements are many times lifted directly from the opera’s score, the composer was unwavering in his conviction that the symphony’s roots are irrelevant for its appreciation. An amazingly young-looking and energetic Muti used all the tools of wizardry in his panoply in order to bring forward the strangeness of music marked by idiosyncratic dissonances, devilish rhythms and fidgety undercurrents, full of grotesquery, that seem to take a life of their own. The Chicago Symphony responded well. The exactness of the attacks, and the overall equilibrium between brass, winds and strings were outstanding. An entire gamut of sounds, from the delicate textures of the Andante to the ferociousness of the Finale, were rendered with great precision in a performance that was, nevertheless, emotionally distant. A decade after Muti was appointed CSO’s Music Director, the chemistry between conductor and ensemble couldn’t be more evident.