When the Chicago Symphony Orchestra commemorated Mahler’s death centennial three years ago, there were plenty of Mahler symphonies to be heard, to be sure. But curiously, none from its then-new music director, Riccardo Muti.
Instead, Muti chose to reconstruct the final concert that Mahler ever conducted a century before. “This was the last concert of Mahler’s life,” Muti told me at the time. “He went back to Vienna and died. As music director of the New York Philharmonic, he chose a complete program of music of Italian contemporary composers. He used the Mendelssohn ‘Italian’ Symphony because one of the composers didn’t write the piece that he asked for, but it was clear that he wanted to have a contemporary Italian evening.
“Incredible, and this tells you everything about Maher. Not only was he a great composer, but he was interested in all of the music around him. As a conductor, he conducted contemporary music, but also ‘Cavalleria rusticana’ and ‘Pagliacci.’ He had a large spectrum view and not only did sophisticated music, but Mascagni, and Leoncavallo.”
A curious addendum to that interview was that a few days later, an unlabeled package arrived containing an old CD of Muti conducting the Mahler First Symphony done with the Philadelphia Orchestra, recorded when Muti was music director there. It was revelatory on a number of levels, so lyrical, transparent and radiant was the playing. The rich strings sounded as if the piece had been recorded by the Vienna Philharmonic. Of course, in offering thanks the next time I saw Muti, Mahler inevitably came up again. Since Muti can make Mahler sound so glorious, I wondered, why not do some here given that he is the music director of what many consider the world’s greatest Mahler orchestra?
“I am glad you liked my recording,” he said, “but everybody conducts Mahler. And not because it is his anniversary, but because he is very fashionable today. However, when I saw [Christian] Thielemann in Dresden on our tour, he said, ‘I don’t conduct Mahler.’ As for me, I do the First and the Fourth, and at some point we will do those here. I like the lieder and the way Mahler uses the voice, it’s incredible.”
“Some point”—at least for the Mahler First Symphony—is this week, the season finale of the 2013-4 season and the final week of Muti’s two-week summer residency. It is being paired with the finale of Muti’s season-long Schubert festival, the Schubert Fifth Symphony, one of his most popular works. But unlike Bruckner, which Muti is doing a complete symphonic cycle with the CSO, Muti says that is not likely to happen with Mahler.
“Other than Mahler One and Four, which are shorter, I have some problems with the symphonies,” Muti confesses. “Sometimes for ten minutes of paradise, you have twenty minutes of—well, something else, I don’t know what. With Bruckner, I find a world that speaks to me, but with Mahler, you must ‘feel’ him to do him. If not, no loss, as there are always so many young conductors who do Mahler because the loud finales will always get you lots of applause!” (Dennis Polkow)
Riccardo Muti conducts the Schubert Fifth Symphony and the Mahler First Symphony with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, June 19, 20 and 21 at Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center, 220 South Michigan, (312)294-3000. 8pm. $49-$180. All ages.