Seldom has the Chicago Symphony Orchestra closed its season in such a jubilant mood as the one that gripped a packed Orchestra Hall on Thursday night.
Never mind the tight veil of secrecy that shrouds the board's search for a new association chief to replace the departing Deborah Rutter. Never mind the lingering uncertainties surrounding several vacant, or soon-to-be-vacant, principal woodwind and brass chairs. Riccardo Muti was closing the books on 2013-14 with Gustav Mahler's music, and all seemed very right indeed in Chicago's corner of the world.
Mahler's exuberant Symphony No. 1 has, of course, been an inextricable part of the orchestra's musical DNA even before the Georg Solti era. But it is one of only two Mahler symphonies the extremely selective Muti has undertaken anywhere thus far, No. 4 being the other. And, in fact, Thursday's performance marked the first time the music director had ever conducted anything of Mahler's here.
One of the reasons the Neapolitan maestro has kept his distance from the bulk of the Mahler symphonies, he has noted with some bemusement, is that they effectively command the audience to erupt in wild applause when the music has shouted its last.
Sure enough, a great roar went up from the crowd at the end of Thursday's performance of the Mahler First, and the applause continued in full as a beaming Muti made his way through the orchestra ranks, shaking the hands of key musicians and signaling for various first-desk players and choirs to rise for solo bows.
But it didn't feel like your typical kneejerk audience reaction to a mammoth Mahlerian peroration; rather, it came across as an honest, heartfelt response to an interpretation that had been prepared with uncommon attention to detail, and realized with uncommon brilliance, by an orchestra that makes just about any other Mahler orchestra on the planet sound like slackers.
While never attempting to blow listeners away in any cheaply theatrical way (as so many conductors are wont to do with this masterpiece), Muti succeeded in blowing them away anyway, for the best possible reason: He respected what's in the score and gave it back to them whole.
You heard it in the rapt stillness with which the delicate stirrings of Mahler's woodland emerged in the symphony's opening pages, with Stephen Williamson's cuckooing clarinet leading the wake-up call. You heard it in the way Muti kept everything light and flowing – no thickness or heaviness to weigh down the textures, even at their ripest. Much of that related directly to his scrupulous attention to dynamics and phrasing. When Mahler asks for triple piano from the trumpets in the dance-band, country-wedding music of the third movement, Muti takes the composer at his word.
Yet this was no dully literal reading in which the programmatic elements were never allowed to intrude on the symphonic argument. The peasants' merrymaking of the scherzo had just the right accentuation to make it sound properly crude. Muti pulled the volume level and pacing way down for the strings-and-harp interlude in the same movement, also holding back in the violin's tender rhapsody in the stormy finale. The raptly hushed effect could not have been more magical both times.
Having studied the score Mahler used for the first Vienna Philharmonic performance of the D major symphony in 1900, and referenced other historical documents as well, Muti convincingly rejects the 1992 critical edition of the score, which calls for the famous "Frere Jacques" parody to be played by the entire double bass section, rather than by a single muted double bass, per tradition. (Both Bernard Haitink and Jaap van Zweden opted for the revisionist view in their recent CSO performances.)
CSO principal bass Alexander Hanna's eloquent treatment of this important passage on Thursday night showed us Muti made the right choice. Through it all, you heard how beautifully he could bring out the darkness that clouds this music, even at its most outwardly sunny. And you heard in the CSO players' full-blooded yet yielding responses a great Mahler orchestra melding its tradition with that of their chief: Italianate drama tempered by Viennese warmth.
If Muti wishes to add more Mahler to his repertory and play it at this inspired level, then bring it on, I say.
Muti paired the Mahler with Schubert's Fifth Symphony, which represents the ingenuously romantic flip-side of the Viennese symphonic coin. The gracious reading the maestro drew from his musicians made for a satisfying, characteristic conclusion to his Schubert cycle this season.
Here, too, he kept the sound transparent, dynamics finely graded (especially soft, softer and softest), rhythms sharply defined. Woodwind colors were touched in discreetly; so were the echoes of Rossini in his ebullient, comic-opera vein. My one disappointment was Muti's failure to sustain the slow movement at the steady andante con moto pace he set at the beginning of that section – the tempo plodded as the music got softer. Still, I was prepared to forgive the maestro much in the face of such caring, civilized Schubert playing.
Although Muti would not want it to be remembered as such, his fourth season as CSO music director was the first since the equally trouble-free 2011-12 season when his active participation in the actual musicmaking was not interrupted by illness or cancellation. Long may his good health continue. The maestro is due back in September to lead Beethoven's Ninth at Millennium Park and Symphony Center. Thursday's happy crowd sounded like it can hardly wait, and who could blame them?
The program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; $36-$278; 312-294-3000, cso.org.
Twitter @jvonrheinCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun