A June appearance from Riccardo Muti can only mean one thing: the end of the season is impending. Muti began matters on a solemn note, dedicating the concert to the victims of the massacre in Orlando the previous weekend, and had the audience stand in a moment of silence before opening the program of, in his words, “beauty, serenity, and love”.

Riccardo Muti © Todd Rosenberg Photography
Riccardo Muti
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

These apt descriptions apply to two of the most genial works from Beethoven and Brahms, both in the sunny key of D major. Beethoven’s Violin Concerto brought forth the celebrated Julia Fischer whose busy touring schedule has not afforded her a CSO appearance in nearly a decade. From her graceful entry, one was struck by the violin’s high tessitura, always reaching heavenward and rising above the rest of the orchestra. Her long, flowing melodies were gorgeous; even her most subtle gestures elicited a lustrous tone. Muti’s accompaniment was keenly judged, with emphasis on the woodwinds so as not to obscure Fischer in a wash of stings. Contrast was drawn between the bucolic and the more animated, martial passages, the latter reminding one that this gentle work was contemporaneous with the fiery Fifth Symphony.

Fischer was most impressive in the cadenza, its ferocious double stops and intricate polyphony a sight to behold. Beethoven breaks with the classical tradition in giving the soloist material post-cadenza; here, a calming melody over pizzicato strings before the winds and brass joined to bring the movement to a more energetic close. The Larghetto was ineffably beautiful, a series of variations with no destination in mind other than a display of the sheer splendor of sound. A couple minor flubs in the brass were hardly enough to detract from the raptly serene atmosphere. The concluding rondo followed attacca, its jaunty melody rustic and replete with hunting horns. Fischer’s lyrical gifts were seen in a contrasting theme presented by way of a particularly lovely duet with bassoonist Keith Buncke, and once again she dazzled in the movement’s cadenza. Fitting with the mood of the evening, Fischer encored with a deeply felt Sarabande from Bach’s D minor Partita.

Brahms’ Serenade no. 1 in D major was one of the budding symphonist’s first forays into orchestral music. An important link between the two works on the program is through Joseph Joachim: as violinist, he popularized Beethoven's concerto; as critic, he recognized Brahms’ insipient genius and conducted the première of this serenade. Longer than the symphonies and lacking their melodic richness and structural cohesion, the Serenade can sound tiresome under lesser hands, but Muti was fully committed to the grandeur of this veiled symphony. It begins in the simplest, most elemental technique at a composer’s disposal: a drone on the tonic, with a melody superimposed in turn by horn player Daniel Gingrich, clarinetist Stephen Williamson, and oboist Frank Rosenwein, the latter guesting from the Cleveland Orchestra.

The following scherzo – the first of two – was markedly darker, although a more lyrical trio was quintessentially Brahmsian, recognizable as such even in this early iteration of the composer. The slow movement was the heart of the piece, anticipating its role in the symphonies, and the principal winds were the standout. A pair of minuets featured playful dialogue between clarinets and bassoons, with interjections from the flute, and the strings radiated old world charm – a nostalgic look backwards offered as a viable alternative to the more revolutionary orchestral works of Liszt from the same period. The penultimate movement, a scherzo with Beethovenian swagger in the brass, was topped only by the unbuttoned exuberance of the finale. There’s another homage to Beethoven in an interpolation of the Ode to Joy, which Muti emphasized through prolongation. As strong a case as ever was made for this vintage work, and one’s appetite has been duly whetted for Muti’s Brahms symphony cycle next season.

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