Russian music of the 19th and 20th centuries remains strongly loved the world over, yet for at least 50 years most Western musicians have approached it as if it were an embarrassment.
Performances may have had tastefulness, high color and visceral excitement, though they also have shown withdrawal from the very thing that keeps the music popular, its unbridled sentiment.
Nearly all first-rate players in the West demonstrate how the scores should go but, ultimately, not why. And even in performances as well-prepared as the ones by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night a full identification with the music's naked emotionalism is missing.
The program held only two works, both symphonies: Alexander Scriabin's Second and Piotyr Tchaikovsky"s Sixth. The former had been played by the CSO once, in 1969. The latter has in recent years been unconscionably repeated.
The Scriabin dates from 1901, when the composer taught at the Moscow Conservatory. It therefore reflects other people's music as well as Scriabin's own considerable individuality. It's in five movements lasting about 50 minutes, which locates it among large-scale, Belle Epoque symphonies by Anton Bruckner, Gustav Mahler and Edward Elgar.
Mysticism comes into Scriabin's symphonies later. The Second has none of his fantastical, wholly personal directives. But like many "decadent" artists in painting and poetry Scriabin was a voluptuary, translating some of the period's erotic Art Nouveau atmosphere into sound. So there is scarcely a solo for his all-important winds that he fails to mark "sweetly," and he gives form to orgiastic nature worship through flute and violin bird calls.
When Riccardo Muti conducted Scriabin symphonies on record, he had an ensemble, the Philadephia Orchestra, that for most of a century had been known for voluptuous sound. The CSO's strengths lie elsewhere. And Thursday it was a measure of the achievement of Muti's preparation that winds and strings played with increased sweetness and brasses gave drama that hinted at tragedy in the early movements as well as a dignity to elevate the light-bringing final march.
Tchaikovsky wrote that his Sixth Symphony "has a lot to say about the judgment, the punishment and the vengeance of God!!!" Muti's account, in effect, removed the composer's exclamation points, especially with the big melting tune in the first movement. Bludgeoning contrasts in dynamics and attack were present, as was gracefulness of the undanceable waltz. But in the following march Muti twice stopped conducting just at the moments that became the most trenchant, which conveyed ease over heightened expression.
In the past Muti lectured the audience about not applauding after the march. This time he sternly thrust his arm toward listeners, which kept most silent except for one who clapped and another who laughed. That you do not laugh at the maestro was indicated by gestures of disgust in addition to a finale sounding equally angry and lamenting.
The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Orchestra Hall, 220 S., Michigan Ave. $40-$190; cso.org