Radu Lupu's eloquent Beethoven comforts CSO crowd in Muti's absence

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Once again indulgence is being asked of Chicago Symphony Orchestra patrons as Riccardo Muti bows out of subscription concerts because of illness and has to relinquish the podium to others. Once again a substitute conductor is brought in at the last minute and manages to save the day. Haven't we heard this refrain before?

The music director's cancellation of both weeks of his January residency while he battles a persistent flu bug had him flying back to his home in Italy earlier in the week. His decision to recuperate in the care of his Italian doctors before he leads the CSO on a demanding, 13-day tour of the Far East, beginning at the end of the month, was understandable.

The upshot was that Edo de Waart, who originally was to have replaced Muti only for the CSO's first program of the new year, is now taking over the second week of concerts as well.

Fortunately the Dutch conductor, an experienced pro who leads the Milwaukee Symphony and is an artistic partner of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, was available on short notice. He came through capably for the all-Beethoven program he inherited from Muti. That program received its first subscription series performance Thursday night at Symphony Center. It marked De Waart's first downtown appearance with the CSO since 1987, although his association with the orchestra goes back 42 years.

De Waart has another weight on his shoulders: He bears the responsibility of preparing part of the symphonic repertory Muti and the orchestra are scheduled to take to Taipei; Hong Kong; the mainland Chinese cities of Shanghai, Beijing and Tianjin; and Seoul, South Korea.

Too bad the tour baggage will not include Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, which lifted Thursday night's program well above the ordinary, thanks to a finely etched, deeply considered performance by Radu Lupu.

The patrician Romanian pianist has long cultivated a narrow segment of the piano repertory, built around Schubert, Mozart, Brahms and Beethoven. It's a repertory to which he returns with musical insights heightened each time. So it was on this occasion. Seated, as is his wont, on a straight-backed chair in lieu of a piano bench, Lupu gave the appearance of grave aloofness, but once he launched into this early Beethoven work his total absorption in the music became apparent.

His tone was at all times purling and superbly regulated, which helped give the first-movement exchanges between the piano and the woodwinds a sense of conversational fluidity. Lupu reminded one how reflective even the young Beethoven could be. The poise, control and crispness he brought to the outer movements were exceeded only by the unaffected grace with which he floated the spacious aria that is the slow movement. Stephen Williamson's clarinet was the pianist's soulmate in raptly beautiful cantabile playing.

Of the three cadenzas Beethoven composed for the first movement, Lupu played the "small" one. If the orchestra's accompaniment felt more workmanlike than inspired, it proved to be neat and clean and satisfied the needs of the soloist. Lupu was warmly received by the audience as well as by the orchestra members.

There is nothing quite like hearing familiar works by the most popular composer in classical music to assure the listener that all's right with the world, even with no Muti in the house.

Still, I'm sure I wasn't the only audience member to wonder how the maestro would have handled the concert's other Beethoven items, the "Leonore" Overture No. 3 and the Symphony No. 3 in E flat ("Eroica"). De Waart did a respectable job with both scores, even if their dramatic fire – the very aspect in which Muti excels – felt somewhat contained.

He kept the overture moving steadily over a firm rhythmic foundation and secured shipshape playing from the orchestra. Christopher Martin sounded the offstage trumpet calls nobly.

Muti was to have conducted the "Eroica" here in October 2010 when the maestro, who was just beginning his tenure as music director, succumbed to exhaustion and was replaced by another substitute, Asher Fisch. I fervently hope that one of these days Chicago audiences actually get to hear Muti's "Eroica"!

De Waart deserves credit for laying a solid groundwork for the CSO performances of this masterpiece Muti is scheduled to take to the Far East. The first movement, complete with exposition repeat, was driving but did not feel unduly driven. More could have been made of the cannon-like chordal dissonances that climax this revolutionary music, and this deficiency spoke to a certain lack of gravitas in De Waart's reading, generally speaking.

The inner movements came off the best. The long funeral march, which De Waart shaped with his hands rather than with the swipes of a baton, gloried in Eugene Izotov's songful oboe playing, while the scherzo moved along purposefully. The orchestra musicians gave De Waart everything he asked for.

There was no mistaking the extra degree of gratitude in the hearty applause that greeted him and the CSO players at the end of the concert. Perhaps the audience was sending out "get well soon, maestro Muti" vibes at the same time.

The program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; $40-$265; 312-294-3000, cso.org.

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