It took awhile. But as the Chicago Symphony’s latest recording under music director Riccardo Muti demonstrates, the Windy City’s orchestra has finally got the Bruckner sound down pat.
The orchestra’s previous excursions into this repertoire yielded mixed results: Heavy on brightness, light on blend. The results were textures that sounded flat and freeze-dried. Bruckner’s symphonies are ones that move upward and downward as much as they do forward. In Chicago the harmonic implications, the crucial verticality of this music was lost.
No such problem with today’s Chicago Symphony. While still punchy and muscular (the timpani and brass in the scherzo nearly lift the listener out of their seat), the orchestra’s corporate sound has become warmer and richer—important qualities in Bruckner.
Though not generally associated with these cathedralic colossi, Muti has made a pair of distinguished additions to the composer’s discography that testify to his Brucknerian bona fides. To those one can add this new Chicago recording of the Ninth Symphony. Not only is it the finest and most idiomatic the orchestra has yet produced—it may very well be the best one since Sir Simon Rattle’s 2014 Berlin recording (EMI/Warner) and Christoph von Dohnányi’s 1989 Cleveland recording (Decca).
Muti has a reputation for leanness, clarity, and directness—and he doesn’t disappoint here. Listen to the sweep of first movement, which unfolds with equal parts power and grace. Both orchestra and conductor, however, know when to lean into the former. The shattering power that has carried Chicago’s name the world over is on ample display here. Try the tempestuous fanfares that greet the first movement’s close, or the raging whirlwind that engulfs much of the scherzo.
Yet there is lyrical power too, as well as warmth. (A quality happily abetted by the superb CSO Resound production.) The yearning, anguished opening theme in the finale rises and falls against a backdrop of burnished brass and carefully etched textures that would have made Giulini envious—and leaves the recent precious, emaciated recordings by Yannick Nézet-Séguin (Atma) and Claudio Abbado (DG, 2014) in the dust. Wheras the finale’s climax simply becomes another moment for them to display their tiring fetishization of “beautiful” orchestral sounds, Muti imparts an almost visceral quality of apocalyptic revelation at the finale’s climax—one can practically hear the forces of light struggling with the onslaught of the darkness—that leave the listener profoundly moved, even unsettled long after the seraphic coda has faded away.
Among the great recordings of the Bruckner Ninth are those by Furtwängler, van Beinum, Klemperer (NYPO), Horenstein (BBC Classics), Schuricht, Mehta, Dohnányi, and Rattle. To those one can safely add Muti, who with the Chicago Symphony has produced a recording that Bruckner lovers will cherish for a long time to come.