Riccardo Muti led the Chicago Symphony in a vibrant concert of Beethoven masterworks. An expansive reading of Leonore No.3 showed off the Orchestra’s virtuosity while conveying the dramatic arc of Fidelio, from the mysterious aura created by the strings to depict Florestan’s bleak prison cell to the triumphant conclusion, with signposts along the way including marvelous solos by flutist Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson and off-stage trumpet-calls by Esteban Battalan, guest principal from the Hong Kong Philharmonic.
A murmur of recognition at the Fifth Symphony’s famous opening motif suggested that many in the audience had not realized they were about to hear the work that epitomizes classical music, but there was nothing clichéd about the performance. A high level of excitement ran through the opening movement, accents quite emphatic and marked by hard timpani beats. This contrasted starkly with the sweetness of the cellos’ statement of the Andante’s opening, which was interwoven wonderfully with the second subject, the Symphony’s initial rhythmic pattern persisting here – and again in the sardonic Scherzo. The transition from the aborted Scherzo to the Finale’s glorious C-major outburst signaled one of music’s greatest moments, marked by the then-innovative addition of trombones, contrabassoon and piccolo. Muti maintained high intensity all the way through the seemingly endless coda, rife with false endings, making the final chords come as a release of almost unbearable tension.
After intermission, the Seventh Symphony was anything but anticlimactic. The Poco sostenuto introduction, with its rather odd harmonic shifts, was quite engrossing, making the very gradual emergence of the Vivace principal theme feel surprising, its persistent galloping rhythm undergirded by timpani strokes noticeably softer than those heard in the Fifth Symphony. The Allegretto is the most crucial part of the Seventh, and Muti carefully controlled dynamics to allow breathing room for the music to build gradually to an overwhelmingly powerful climax. The rapid-paced Scherzo was infectious, its Trio not taken unduly slowly, and the Finale swirled, horns and trumpets to the fore in the coda. As an encore, there was Brahms’s G-minor Hungarian Dance, first of the twenty-one.