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Muti, CSO miss heavenly heights in Bach’s Mass in B Minor

Music Director Riccardo Muti leads CSO during performance April 2013. | Todd Rosenberg Photography 2013

Music Director Riccardo Muti leads the CSO during a performance in April 2013. | Todd Rosenberg Photography 2013

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Updated: May 14, 2013 6:13AM

Few works are more esteemed as grand contributions to Western civilization than Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B Minor.

Neither Protestant nor Catholic, the work is universal, though the Latin language and some structure comes from the latter tradition. (Bach, however, was a devoted Lutheran.) Written in parts over 35 years with no plan that it would be performed in Bach’s lifetime, it was directed to a posterity of unknown distance. (It sat in drawers for more than a century after Bach’s 1750 death before receiving its first full performance.) It sums up and weaves together the styles, scoring and experiments of Bach’s full career with lessons from his keyboard, chamber, orchestral, choral and vocal music integrating harmony, counterpoint and invention.

But is grand enough when reviving this work? For Riccardo Muti, returning to concerts as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for the first time since September, grandeur seemed to be the chief goal Thursday at Symphony Center, but solemnity and anonymity reigned for much of the time. And a long time it was, too, two hours and five minutes, plus a full intermission. (It was last heard here in 1990, under Sir Georg Solti.)

Muti has spoken, insightfully and humorously, about the need to navigate between doctrinaire ideas of “historic performance” of earlier music and grandiose cathedral performances with hundreds of choristers and players. But the issue here was not the types of strings or bowing or the size or restriction of the sound of each instrument — areas where Muti’s call for a middle ground, embodied here by 85 singers and an orchestra of 55, makes great sense. But the so sober, museum-like presentation too often lacked the very liveliness and personal connection that the long-experienced conductor contends “period performances” miss.

Bach front loads the five-part work with a lengthy Kyrie, compact in text, but thick with choral and orchestral writing. Here, this set a weighty tone that dominated the first half, including the second-part Gloria. After the break, Muti’s ideas and practice came together much more fully on the nine sections of the Credo. The CSO Chorus, prepared by its director Duain Wolfe, had often been uncharacteristically muddy up to that point. It now came fully alive, and Muti delivered the central “Et incarnatus est,” “Crucifixus” and “Et resurrexit” — the core of the Christian creed — in all three dimensions with incarnation, the nail hammers of crucifixion and the glory and splendor of resurrection essentially enacted. That same spirit and execution was present in the well-known concluding “Dona nobis pacem.” One wished that this feeling could be projected back through the full two hours-plus. Perhaps it will be during the work’s remaining performances.

Orchestral clarity and articulation were there at all times. And solo parts were enviable and more both on their own and while interweaving with the four vocal soloists. Principal flute Mathieu Dufour is always worth the price of admission alone, and oboe d’amore players Eugene Izotov and Scott Hostetler and bassoonists David McGill and Dennis Michel matched him in insight and tenderness. Horn Daniel Gingrich and concertmaster Robert Chen offered elegance and a certain stateliness. The continuo accompaniment of cellist John Sharp, bass Alexander Hanna, organist David Schrader and harpsichordist Mark Shuldiner also embodied Muti’s ideas with supportive style.

Vocal soloists reflected Muti’s preference for lesser-known young European singers, in this case, mezzo Anna Malavasi and soprano Eleonora Buratto (both Italians), and Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu and Czech bass-baritine Adam Plachetk. One can understand why “stars” as used by Carlo Maria Giulini, say, in his well-known recording, do not appeal to Muti for a devotional and ensemble work such as this. But the general lack of distinction and the failure of the two women singers to demonstrate any personal connection with the essential poetry they were singing (Pirgu and Plachetk fared better) also kept this major performance achievement from reaching heavenly heights.

Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.6).

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