Famous for his interpretations of Brahms, Riccardo Muti has evolved his approach to the composer over the years. In an interview with the online publication Chicago on the Aisle, the maestro explained a key factor is the understanding of the melancholy streak that runs through Brahms’ works, especially his symphonies.

In a 1879 letter, now kept in the archives of Vienna’s Musikverein, Brahms wrote to a colleague that “I am … a severely melancholic person” and that “black wings are constantly flapping above us.”

When Muti read this letter, he said he “finally understood the kind of melancholic sound that the [Vienna Philharmonic] made the first time I worked with them. In the years since then, I enlarged my repertoire and began doing a lot of music before and after Brahms — and it has given me the possibility of looking at Brahms’ symphonies in a completely different way.”

This view shaped his performances of the complete Brahms symphonies with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra this month.

“People think that Brahms was German .. but Brahms’ soul, his heart, is Vienna,” Muti said. “And Brahms’ sound comes out of  Schubert, who wrote lieder, and whose music is always singing.”

Although Muti finds the American way of doing Brahms typically bigger and more Germanic, the CSO has assimilated the more Viennese approach. “When Brahms asks for a pianissimo, if you play a real pianissimo as the Chicago Symphony does, the transparency of the score comes out,” Muti said. After seven years with the maestro, the CSO responds “without having to make that extra effort to try to understand. Doing all the Brahms together like this has been a revelation for us all.”

To read the complete interview, click here.

TOP: Riccardo Muti conducts the CSO in Brahms’ Second Symphony. | Todd Rosenberg Photography