Although the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 126th season is now well underway, there was one final capstone of the 125th anniversary celebrations to be had – a presentation of the very same program the orchestra gave for their first concert, on October 16, 1891. The program included a Beethoven symphony and a Tchaikovsky concerto, both which continue to be mainstays of the repertoire, and was bookended by less familiar overtures by Wagner and Dvořák. In 1891, all these works were less than a century old and half of the composers were still living – indeed something one would not often find in the CSO programs of today. As a nice touch, the program books eschewed Phillip Huscher’s always excellent notes in favor of facsimile of those from 1891, perhaps emphasizing the timelessness of this music.

Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra © Todd Rosenberg Photography
Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

Muti’s reading of Wagner’s A Faust Overture was dark-hued, intense, and dramatic. It began with eerie sounds in the basses and tuba, the brooding Faust in despairing search of knowledge, much as Wagner was desperate for a major success at the time of this work’s composition. The principal winds were the standouts, from the stormy atmosphere that brought to mind the roughly contemporaneous Der fliegende Holländer, to the transcendence of the celestial conclusion.

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony certainly needs no introduction, and neither does Muti’s interpretation as it’s a piece he’s presented often here and on tour, including the opening concert of last season. A flame burns hotter in a compressed space, and this principle seemed to be Muti’s guiding light in the driving, uncompromising force he gave to first movement in what was a study in intensity. The extended passage for solo oboe is always a highlight, and Alex Klein delivered the goods. The richness of the low strings initiated the slow movement and Muti painted a sumptuous tapestry, almost sinfully beautiful. Muti began the Scherzo at barely a whisper before the insistence of the horn calls took over, plunging headstrong into the finale. Another brisk tempo choice added to the sheer exuberance; this ecstatic state was something one hoped would never end.

It’s hard to imagine such a warhorse as Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor being less than two decades old as was the case during that fateful first concert. There was another direct link to a great composer as the soloist in 1891 was Rafael Joseffy, a pupil of Franz Liszt. 125 years later and the soloist of choice was the remarkable Daniil Trifonov, in the same concerto with which he made his CSO debut under Charles Dutoit in 2012. Don’t let his youthfulness fool you: Trifonov is the real deal, a fully formed, mature artist.

Trifonov gave commanding weight to the powerful opening chords, and his technique was second to none. The simultaneous theme given in the strings was to die for, yet as if in defiance Tchaikovsky only uses it at the opening. Most spectacular were Trifonov’s volleys of double octaves, playing them at such breakneck speed as to hold one breathless, à la Horowitz. The cadenza further displayed his dexterity, building to a powerful climax. Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson’s gorgeous flute solo opened the slow movement, and other notable solos were to be had by cellist Kenneth Olsen. Trifonov’s lyrical side was on full display, contrasted by the prestissimo section, essentially a scherzo in what is perhaps a veiled symphony with piano. The energetic rhythms of the finale’s Cossack dance brought the work to a suitably exciting close. Trifonov seemed genuinely moved by the warm reception he received, his usually serious demeanor fading into a beaming smile.

Dvořák’s ebullient Husitská Overture rounded off the program. Written for the opening of the National Theater in Prague, it reflects on Czech history in a celebration of the Hussites. Hussite hymns are woven into the fabric of the work (as Smetana did in Má vlast), and the opening chorale was presented in deftly balanced winds. The strings joined in due course, and this quintessentially Slavic work became increasingly exultant in a most spirited performance. When the last chord was struck, cannons spewed the audience with colored streamers – the effect gimmicky, the sentiment spot on.