Riccardo Muti led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a richly entertaining concert that showed off their strong rapport – Muti’s contract as music director has been extended through 2022. The precise playing was more reminiscent of the perfectionism of the Georg Solti era rather than the often-freewheeling approach of Daniel Barenboim.
Verdi’s Sicilian Vespers Overture was a terrific curtain-raiser, with Muti sustaining dramatic tensions and emphasizing contrasts. After the dark opening, marked by soft drum-beats, the strings were marvelous, the cellos gorgeous, and the superb brass came to the fore in the stirring conclusion. Then Stephen Williamson joined his colleagues for a wonderful performance of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. Williamson’s intonation and phrasing were impeccable, and he was partnered perfectly by Muti and an appropriately scaled-down ensemble.
Following intermission, Clémentine Margaine brought a dusky voice to Chausson, projecting powerfully over the orchestra in the two romantic poems by Maurice Bouchor: ‘La Fleur des eaux’ beginning optimistically with lilacs blooming in springtime, but ‘La mort de l’amour’ laments love that is as dead as flowers at the end of a year. The central section featured notable solos by bassoonist Keith Buncke and cellist John Sharp.
Finally, a glowing account of the ‘Sea Interludes’ from Britten’s Peter Grimes that was exceptional in virtuosity and for Muti’s masterful evocation of theatrical underpinnings. Vivid colors from woodwinds and harp suggested the glimmer of ‘Dawn’ on the water’s surface, while brass and low strings made the surge of the sea almost viscerally perceptible. The flurry of parishioners on ‘Sunday Morning’ contrasted delightfully with the church’s summonses ringing out splendidly on horns and then tubular bells. Stefán Ragnar’s flute created a deceptively calm aura of ‘Moonlight’ that presages the opera’s tragic ending and the brass led the emphatic raging of ‘Storm’ reflecting the elements’ indifference to human events.