22 April, 2011

Concert Review: Chicago Symphony - Muti

Concert Review: Chicago Symphony Orchestra - Ricardo Muti

17 April, 2011, Carnegie Hall
Chicago Symphony Orchestra - Ricardo Muti

It's been an unduly long time since I last heard the CSO. I used to hear this orchestra a lot during the Solti era. The orchestra was incredibly brilliant and perfect, though just a bit too stern under the always driven Solti. I have never heard them since under Barenboim or Boulez. Either I missed them on my trips back to NYC in recent years or found the programs or guest conductors not suitable for my taste. It's too bad as they are a great orchestra for Mahler and Bruckner.

And it has been even longer since I heard Ricardo Muti. I still remember his mind-boggling performance of Alexander Nevsky with the Philadelphia Orchestra during my student days. One of the reasons why I stayed away from him is his narrow musical taste, which centered on operas and mostly classics, with almost nothing by Mahler and Bruckner in his repertoire.

From the opening of Cherubini's Overture in G one knew one was in for a treat. The woodwinds were refined and in complete harmony with the orchestra. The reading demonstrated perfect classicism, and one can see why Beethoven admired him. Although the work is not quite memorable, one could see why Muti would champion it (almost the lone one). As an opener it was well nigh perfect and whetted the appetite for the ensuing Liszt Les preludes, which received a noble reading. Here, the perfectly balanced reading of the performance successfully joined high drama with classical discipline. In both works Muti showed off his mettle as opera conductor: it was not necessary to resort to empty force for drama, and everything just sang.

As the Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 went along, a feeling of familiarity came upon me. Why, it was uncannily like listening to Haitink's RCO version (Decca), except this was live, in sonically resplendent Carnegie Hall! Aside from fractionally slower tempo, the readings cannot really be distinguished. The same rather objective demeanor, smooth and perfect playing and perfect balance; in other words a rather "objective" reading, or a "literal" one if you wish, likely to please some and questioned by others. For myself, I enjoyed it immensely because under the perfection, the musicians played incredibly in ensemble, with great attention to details and expression, never in danger of sounding bland. The strings, led by the excellent concertmaster Robert Chen (whom you might remember was soloist with the HK Sinfonietta sometime back), played with a sonorous precision that was disarming. One could hear every little scoop with uncanny clarity, superhuman indeed! Everything was as perfectly played as I have ever heard any orchestra play any piece, but one still has to single out the tympanist, whose magnificently strong and shaded playing punctuated the glorious moments of climax.

The CSO seems to be as perfect as ever, but with an added human touch, under the new director.

NY Times review

Chicago Triburne review
Chicago Sun Times review

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