Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.74 (Pathétique)
Nobilissima visione – Suite
Le poème de l’extase, Op.54
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 5 October, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
The Royal Festival Hall was the place to be (unless it was at the BBC Symphony Orchestra concert across the river!). The Chicago Symphony arrived, attracted George Benjamin, Kissin, Kovacevich and Uchida (Sir Peter Hall, too) as part of the audience, started on time, dealt with mortality, aided spiritual nourishment, took us to Heaven, and then to the Elysian Fields. If there sometimes seems a business-like authority to Riccardo’s Muti’s conducting, this isn’t reflected in the music-making itself. The ‘Pathétique’ Symphony, sepia-tinted rather than presented in Technicolor, ebbed and flowed in the most expressive and characterised way and was underlined by musical cohesiveness. A performance without even a hint of novelty, it nevertheless compelled through outstanding playing that never drew attention to itself: the concentration was on detail, line and fidelity imbued with direct communication.
The sound of the CSO surprised: lean, astringent, bass-light, the brass reined-in (the latter welcome). The Muti sound? Maybe the Royal Festival Hall acoustic was having a ‘bad’ night! More the former, I’m sure. But the dynamic range seemed a little restricted (at both ends) and bass lines were negligible, yet there were moments when the orchestra’s power surprised; this could just have been a remarkably thought-through interpretation, private rather than public, micro-managed while avoiding pedantry. Muti both challenged and inspired the CSO to give of its considerable best and fashioned a performance remarkable for being at-once familiar yet so utterly fresh. From a doleful beginning (a superb bassoon solo) through reminiscences of happier times, then thunderbolts and tempests, a dark-hued ‘Waltz’ and a very lively yet unforced ‘March’ to the impassioned yet ultimately desolate finale, this was an absorbing re-creation. With a simple gesture Muti ensured no vacuous applause greeted the ‘March’, his virtual attacca into the Adagio making a telling contrast of emotions. By the end of the finale, presaged by a doom-laden gong-stroke, the fading to silence (the double basses’ fluctuating heartbeats holding on to life, just) had my blood running cold.
The Orchestra’s sound after the interval was different: fuller, more dynamic, the double basses (still eight in number) more prominent; there was something a little more vivid and tangible.
Quite why Paul Hindemith gets a bad press is a mystery. Yes, he could be formal and ultra-practical, but he also wrote some truly great pieces, one such being the ballet, Nobilissima visione, heard here in Suite form (five movements from eleven). Inspired by Giotto’s frescoes depicting the life of St Francis, Hindemith’s superb score opens in raptly expressive mood, wonderfully captured by the CSO, Muti peering thoughtfully beneath the music’s contrapuntal crust and then pacing the rhythmic side-slips of the ‘March’ to perfection (side drum, without snares, nestling in with the woodwinds) and bringing out the pastoral aspects (in every sense) with a beguiling touch before conjuring a wonderfully sonorous conclusion. Converts to Hindemith will have started here.
Muti was at his most expressive and flexible in Scriabin’s The Poem of Ecstasy, which in the context of the concert seemed like a transcendental counterpart to the ‘Pathétique’. Alive with mysticism, eroticism even, the variable pulse of the score became a glorious diversion, wonderfully fliessend, the CSO’s nine horns, heroic trumpets and opulent strings seemingly caught up in an improvised (but very precisely gauged of course) journey to the cosmos. The only disappointment was the organ; imported of course while the RFH’s own instrument remains a notable omission from the recent refurbishment. Although the CSO’s instrument looked an imposing beast, it was impossible to even feel its presence. Nevertheless, the final chord was suitably ‘reaching’ and conclusive.
Riccardo Muti isn’t one to be dictated to by an audience, especially not those members of it filling in their hospital registration forms regarding coughs that develop between movements – thus in the ‘Pathétique’ Muti just carried on. He also began the Hindemith and Scriabin while the dying embers of welcoming applause were still in the air. Muti has a great sense of theatre. He can also address an audience with graciousness. In his witty introduction to the Schubert encore, the B flat Entr’acte from Rosamunde – “nothing to do with the rest of the programme” – he made the point that all the strings would be involved, but that he had asked them to play “very gently”. They did. The result was 10 minutes of deep and expansive bliss. Exquisite! The opening to the SBC’s “Shell Classic International” season could not have been better launched.