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Riccardo Muti puts his distinctive touch on the CSO’s core German rep

6/13/13 9:06:28 PM 
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Riccardo Muti Music Director
Rudolf Buchbinder Piano
Beethoven #39;s Piano ConcerNo. 4 

 © Todd Rosenberg Photography

6/13/13 9:06:28 PM Chicago Symphony Orchestra Riccardo Muti Music Director Rudolf Buchbinder, Piano Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2013

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♦ 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony subs for Bruckner’s Symphony No. 1)

♦ Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan

♦ Tickets, $10-$145

♦ (312) 294-3000,

Updated: July 16, 2013 6:28AM

For the second of his three busy June weeks with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Riccardo Muti is focusing on repertoire more associated with the CSO than with him. That he gives most of the current program his own touch makes for an excellent combination of the strengths of the music director and the CSO.

Former CSO music director Daniel Barenboim lives and breathes Wagner in a way that Muti does with his countryman Verdi. Muti’s attention to the latter’s 200th birthday year has been intense on both sides of the Atlantic and includes the Four Sacred Pieces with the CSO Chorus next week to close the CSO season. His commemoration of the same anniversary for the titan of Germanic opera has been more grudging. But the compilation of the two great “Ring” cycle “Gotterdammerung” excerpts — Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and Funeral March — presented Thursday night at Symphony Center showed Muti committed to this lavish and gripping music, if playing it more smoothly and elegantly than some. This great Wagner orchestra excels in this material, and Daniel Gingrich and his horns and the four Wagner tubas, six (!) harps, bass trumpet and augmented sections alone were worth the price of a ticket.

Barenboim and Muti also share long associations with Anton Bruckner, who idolized Wagner, and yet was his own special creation as well. Barenboim’s way with composer’s usually involves intense programming cycles; he recorded the 10 Bruckner symphonies with the CSO in the 1970s, well before he established his long formal association with the orchestra.

Muti will make a large Schubert survey next season, however, his Bruckner cycle, which he says he would like to present in its entirety here, has been coming one work at a time. This time, it is the rarely played First Symphony, in C Minor, in the original unrevised 1866 “Linz” version, which Muti himself helped to popularize in the ’70s and early ’80s.

Even geniuses are affected by when and how they encounter things. One part of understanding the oddity and originality of Bruckner is to recall that in 1863, he first heard Wagner’s “Tannhauser” live, three years before he heard Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony performed. His First Symphony was the work that arose between these two life- and art-changing experiences for the composer. In a way, it shows us the 41-year-old Bruckner finding his voice. “Poor Bruckner,” more than one player has said after performing this work.

Muti makes the piece much more than that, shaping every aspect into a whole, bringing out the eerie beauty of its slow movement and showing to full effect the invention of the Bruckner scherzo. That the CSO also happens to be one of the great Bruckner orchestras just makes one wish the timeline for a complete project would accelerate. Northwestern prof John Thorne sat in as first-chair flute and Roma Duncan of the locked-out Minnesota Orchestra as piccolo. They contributed to beautiful wind playing throughout. (Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony, No. 41, replaces the Bruckner work on the Tuesday concert.)

When his longtime companion gave birth to twins earlier than expected, pianist Leif Ove Andsnes informed CSO management that his first obligation was to her and their children and reluctantly withdrew from his long-awaited collaboration with Muti on the Beethoven Fourth Concerto. (The babies, a boy and a girl, are doing well in Bergen.) A shame, as these two serious artists of different generations see music very similarly and respond well to each other, as their first concerts together, with the New York Philharmonic five years ago, demonstrated.

Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder, 66, graciously agreed to come to Chicago on short notice and without a program change. Although he played three times with the CSO at Ravinia in 1973 and 1977, Thursday marked his downtown and subscription concerts debut. Comparisons of substitutes to announced performers are rarely fair and expectations can’t help playing a role in evaluation. Buchbinder is not a pianist of great rhetorical skills or depth, but he is clear and clean, tasteful and straightforward, and demonstrably respectful of his colleagues on stage. More than any of the other concertos, the 1806 G Major, asks for a strong interpretive engagement for the soloist. Buchbinder’s opening was a whisper and his rhythms were inconsistent but his was an unenviable position to be in. The orchestra and Muti gave him great cooperation, and he appeared moved by the audience ovation.

Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).

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