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Riccardo Muti and the CSO find a happy accord in Brahms

Riccardo Muti

Riccardo Muti

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◆ 8 p.m. Saturday

◆ Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan

◆ Tickets, $19-$199

◆ (312) 294-3000,

Updated: April 11, 2012 8:03AM

In his first seasons of what he says will be his last music directorship of a major international orchestra, Riccardo Muti has had the luxury of sharing with Chicago Symphony Orchestra audiences the unusual and eclectic repertoire so close to his heart. This week holds the first opportunity for Chicagoans to hear him and the CSO play a Brahms symphony together.

Some music writers get caught up with what might be called the genetic theory of music-making: Italians are best at Italian music, French pianists at French scores, an Austrian conductor will show special affinity with Bruckner, etc. Certainly, because of training, traditions and language, there will be cases of accomplishment through loyalty, pride and additional insight. But how one could explain the careers of Toscanini, Boulez, Fritz Reiner and Glenn Gould, among others, through this pigeonholing is something I’ll never understand.

The Southern Italian-born Muti has been conducting Brahms for much of his career, led the Requiem here two seasons ago and recorded the composer’s four symphonies with the Philadelphia Orchestra 20 years ago in a highly regarded cycle. His offering of the Second Symphony, Op. 73, to a packed “Afterwork Masterworks” crowd Wednesday night at Symphony Center only showed that he can’t bring too much Brahms back to Orchestra Hall. Muti illuminates this composer’s scores in a way that would have had the great man nodding his head in happy agreement.

Many a listener thinks he or she knows these essential works by heart. Muti shakes up such complacency, however affectionate. Did you recall wind choirs like this? The spareness around the almost improvisatory-sounding woodwind solos? What about the underlining of key sections by the horns, even when there is not a horn solo? (Both Daniel Gingrich, in the principal’s chair, and Oto Carrillo offered beautiful solos.) Although they do so in different ways, I can’t think of any conductors today besides Muti and Bernard Haitink who play Brahms at this level and with this much lightness. And neither of them from Hamburg or Vienna. Just tamp down those mighty trombones next time perhaps, Maestro?

What a shame that the sublime concert-opening Violin Concerto, Op. 77 (1878), written when Brahms started making his annual spring sojourns to Italy, did not have a more sympathetic and insightful soloist. At 63, Pinchas Zukerman may still possess unique technical gifts, tone and a strength that can have him heard well over any orchestral sounds, but his dull, self-involved performances of the last years are a regular disappointment. Finding the tops of his shoes more interesting than anything Muti and the orchestra might be doing, he missed many chances for true collaboration, including the lithe solo of principal oboe Eugene Izotov in the adagio and the sumptuous string playing throughout.

Detroit Symphony Orchestra principal bass Alexander Hanna, 25, sitting in the vacant CSO section principal’s chair for these two weeks under Muti, brought a clarity, precision and level of excitement to the basses that would be most welcome here.

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

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