STOCKHOLM — Before Riccardo Muti joins the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for their fifth joint European tour starting Oct. 20, he had another very important date in Europe with another world-class ensemble: the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

On Oct. 8 in Stockholm, the CSO’s music director conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in music of Liszt and Wagner as part of a gala ceremony hosted by the Birgit Nilsson Foundation. Every two or three years, the foundation gives a $1 million prize to an outstanding performer or ensemble, and this year’s winner was the 172-year-old Vienna Philharmonic. Established by the Swedish-born Nilsson, one of opera’s most outstanding artists who died in 2005, the prize first went to Placido Domingo in 2009. Muti was the winner in 2011.

Birgit Nilsson

Birgit Nilsson

The Nilsson Prize is sometimes called the Nobel Prize of the classical music world, and the aura of the Nobels was palpable at the concert. Between Oct. 6 and 13, the Sweden-based Nobel Committee announced its awards at events in Sweden and Oslo. The Vienna Philharmonic received the Nilsson Prize in Stockholm’s Concert Hall, a distinctively blue, severely classical edifice where the Nobel Prizes are awarded every Dec. 10. As with the Nobel ceremony, Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf presented the Nilsson award.

For such an elegant occasion, the mood onstage was exceptionally intimate. Representatives of the orchestra fondly recalled their long, close association with Nilsson, and Muti recalled his similarly happy relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic. “I will be very short,” he said with a smile as he addressed the audience, “because I don’t want you to wait to hear this wonderful orchestra.”

Muti first led the Vienna Philharmonic as a young conductor in 1971 at the Salzburg Festival in Austria, and he has returned often to the philharmonic’s podium in the ensuing years for regular subscription concerts, opera productions, international tours and Salzburg Festival performances. For Muti’s 70th birthday in 2011, the orchestra named him an honorary member.

“Everything I learned about music I learned from the Vienna Philharmonic,” he said. Turning to the orchestra and speaking in Italian, he declared, “Vero, vero,” to emphasize the truth of his point. “The beautiful sound, how to build a phrase, make a climax. A musician can learn by going into a room and practicing 12 hours a day. A conductor has to make his mistakes in front of an orchestra.”

For the ceremony, Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic performed Liszt’s Les préludes, full of ardor and a luxuriously rich string sound, and an orchestral version of the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. A film clip from 1973 of Nilsson and tenor Jon Vickers in the Liebestod preceded the orchestral version at the Stockholm concert.

“Don’t you think it’s outrageous for me to conduct now after hearing that?” Muti said, joking, as he took the podium for the Liebestod. But in earlier remarks, he spoke seriously about the piece, alluding to the Nazis’ use of Wagner’s music for political ends in the 1930s and 1940s. “At one time used wrongly in this world,” Muti said, “this finale is about freedom, light and brotherhood.”

The Vienna Philharmonic will use the $1 million award to help digitize its massive archives. The orchestra has been criticized in recent years for not revealing the extent of its cooperation with the Nazi regime and is working to bring that history to light. Digitizing the archives, said the Philharmonic’s president Andreas Grossbauer, will make them more accessible to “an interested public.”

Wynne Delacoma, classical music critic of the Sun-Times from 1991 to 2006, is a Chicago-based arts writer and lecturer.

PHOTO: Riccardo Muti conducted the Vienna Philharmonic at the 2014 Birgit Nilsson Prize ceremony in Stockholm. | © Fredrik Stehn / Jan Landfeldt