CSO, Muti combine for robust performance of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5

Music Director Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra offered a gripping tutorial Thursday evening in what sets apart rarefied ensembles like it from so many other orchestras around the world.

The CSO ended its concert in Orchestra Hall with a towering, electric performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 100, with energy and drive coursing through the orchestra and cascading off the stage.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Riccardo Muti, conductor

Written during World War II, it is not an evocation or condemnation of war so much as what the composer described as an ode to the “free and happy man — his strength, his generosity and the purity of his soul.”

But if the overall spirit is one of uplift, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty of tension and unsettledness along the way, with Prokofiev’s trademark pinched, sometimes aching harmonies and a prominent, rumbling bass line delivered not just by the double basses but also the prominent bass clarinet, contrabassoon and even the piano.

It is a mighty work that requires a mighty performance, and it got that Thursday evening, the kind that is only possible when a top-level conductor and top-level orchestra are completely in sync, each responding to and feeding off the other.

Muti was thoroughly in his element here, attending to the smallest details, drawing stunning playing from every section (especially the trumpets and the rest of the penetrating brass) and, most important, deftly shaping and propelling the overall arc and restless thrust of this piece.

There was one high point after another, starting with Muti and the orchestra’s kinetic, all-encompassing take on the sprawling, slow first movement, which could almost be a work unto itself, and continuing with the scherzo second movement. This lively section, with its scampering, off-balance rhythms, was pushed and punctuated by the spirited precision of the six-member percussion section.

After the slow third movement, which builds to its own mini-climax, the symphony culminates with the soaring fourth movement. Its catchy, uplifting melody first voiced with aplomb by principal clarinetist Stephen Williamson, who delivered one of the many noteworthy individual performances in this work.

Unfortunately, the abundant energy so present in the Prokofiev symphony was in shorter supply in the orchestra’s performance of Wolfgang Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major, K. 543, the centerpiece of the first half. While this take was fine as far as it went, the tempos felt a bit sluggish and the playing just lacked the spark and buoyancy this music requires.

Although Muti has presented his share of premieres during his CSO tenure, he might be more remembered for the overlooked and underappreciated older works that he has programmed, and Thursday night’s concert provided a good example.

The maestro opened the concert with Gioachino Rossini’s “Il viaggio a Reims (The Journey to Reims)” Overture, but as program annotator Phillip Huscher makes clear, it is in fact not an overture to that opera, as was earlier believed. The undated 19th-century piece, which has not been performed by the CSO in nearly 60 years, actually draws its thematic material from a set of dances the composer wrote for another opera.

Whatever its genesis, it is a charming, effervescent work, and Muti seemed to delight in every phrase, leading the orchestra in a gentle, genial and utterly winning performance of this almost unknown gem.

Deserving special mention was Martha Long from the Oregon Symphony, who served as guest principal flutist for the first half. She possesses a strong, pure tone and had some stand-out solo moments both in this work and the Mozart symphony.

At the beginning of the second half, Jeff Alexander, president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, and Muti presented the Theodore Thomas Medallion to three retiring members of the orchestra — violinist Paul Phillips Jr., bassoonist Dennis Michel and assistant principal oboist Michael Henoch. Not present for the ceremony was a fourth recipient — violinist Fox Fehling.

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