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Monday, February 2, 2015

Concert Review: Spirits From the Vasty Deep

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra returns to Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The impassioned, imposing Riccardo Muti.
Photo from
A New York visit by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is always an event, especially with the mercurial Neapolitan conductor Riccardo Muti at the helm of this storied orchestra. Last Friday night, Mr. Muti led his troops in the first of three weekend concerts at the Hall, with a program of Mendelssohn, Debussy and Scriabin.

Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) was a Russian composer and conservatory classmate of Rachmaninoff. Diminuitive and sensitive, his works combined the revolutionary chromaticism of Richard Wagner with the hot-house delicacy of Fréderic Chopin. His last decade was lived in a sort of fever dream, as the composer planned Mysterium, a vast music-and-dance project that would be staged somewhere in the Himalayas and would at its apotheosis, cause the world to end and humanity be reborn.

Scriabin's orchestral output (five symphonies, a piano concerto, and various other pieces) are a longtime passion of Mr. Muti's, who has repeatedly declared that Scriabin, like Mahler, is a composer whose "time will come." On Friday, Mr. Muti led his forces in the Symphony No. 3 (The Divine Poem) a key transitional work in Scriabin's output. Written in 1904, it stands at a crossroads between his early salon style and the mystic intimations of the beyond that he reached for late in his life.

Played in one 50-minute mass, The Divine Poem is essentially symphonic in structure. An introduction and three movements are draped in velour-like minor-key orchestration, swaddling the short musical ideas in a couch of aural luxury. The overall effect is of swimming through a Wagnerian soup, or the second act of Tristan und Isolde stripped of its minimal plot points.

Under Mr. Muti's  measured leadership, the execution of this Poem was flawless, with the Chicago players rising to the challenge and giving this work considerable effort and passages of great beauty. This is serious, challenging music, a fascinating sound-world to visit. It is not the conductor's fault that the endless pages of murmuring strings, moaning brass and growling basses failed to communicate the hidden meaning that fought to be heard from its prison within the bars of the printed score.

The first half of the program was just as ambitious--and far more palatable. Mr. Muti elected to start his three-day Carnegie sojourn with Felix Mendelssohn's underrated and underperformed Calm Seas and Prosperous Voyage, an early tone poem inspired by the writings of Goethe. Here, clarity and warmth predominated, with the Chicago cellos sounding particularly inspired in the hushed opening passage. The work rose slowly from these doldrums as the tempo picked up, a prevailing wind that guided the work forward in a swell and surge of sound.

Then came La Mer, the three "sea-pictures" by Debussy that showed composers that long forms for orchestra could be written without resorting to conventional musical structure. Here was the true revolution in French music, played with eloquent phrasing and a restrained delicacy in its early bars. That civility vanished with the great surge of sound at the close of the first movement, when Mr. Muti drew chords of great power and resonance from the sterling Chicago brass secion. The conclusion, which combines the ideas that precede it into a stormy tempest of sound, satisfied the soul and eliminated any further need for mystic revelation.

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