Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Muti in New York [Cherubini, Liszt & Shostakovich]

Cherubini
Overture in G
Liszt
Les Préludes
Shostakovich
Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Riccardo Muti


Reviewed by: Violet Bergen

Reviewed: 17 April, 2011
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Riccardo Muti in Taipei (Taiwan) 2004. ©www.riccardomuti.com. Photograph : ©Silvia Lelli 2004Luigi Cherubini was internationally renowned in the early-nineteenth-century. The newly founded Royal Philharmonic Society asked him to compose three pieces for its second season in 1815, one of which was the Overture in G. Though not written as a prelude to an opera, the work is highly dramatic, making it easy to see why Beethoven thought Cherubini the greatest composer among his contemporaries. Riccardo Muti elicited a warm sound from the muted strings in the slow opening finding richness behind the piece’s simple beauty. The subsequent fast section showcased the precision and unity of the Chicago Symphony’s violins.

Liszt was the inventor of the symphonic poem, music that depicts literary or visual imagery. Les Préludes was originally an overture to an unpublished choral work. Its various sections conjure up the gamut of emotions and associated imagery. Muti, showing no signs of recent health problems, made this familiar work sound lively and fresh. A master of orchestral balance, he let the strings and brass sound equally and simultaneously massive, yet also considerate of each other. He milked the romanticism of the musical phrases to the hilt, but with such sensitivity that they never sounded corny. A true storyteller, he brought thoughtful organization to the whole, allowing for a thrilling build to the end, the brass delivering crisp fanfares.

Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony was written at haste after the composer withdrew his Fourth Symphony following the harsh criticism of his opera “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”. The piece was a success. The composer wrote: “In the finale, the tragically tense impulses of the earlier movements are resolved in optimism and joy of living.” To our ears, the coda has a forced nature and is deeply ironic, music that is impossible to hear without calling to mind the oppressive political regime of the time.

Muti found yet another color palette for the strings, one of icy brilliance throughout a vast dynamic range. The first movement’s thematic material flowed smoothly through the orchestra, and there was huge contrast between the military sections and more serene passages. The Allegretto was a darkly perverse scherzo, even when articulation was light. Concertmaster Robert Chen’s solos in both of these movements were gorgeous. In the Largo, the strings were exquisite in their controlled legato bowing, a morphing organism of pathos. Muti again showed his genius of organizational nuance in the intense finale, which built to seemingly impossible heights of intensity. Whether or not there was resolution must remain subjective opinion, but what is undisputed is that there was a profound meaning of some sort, and Muti brought it out.

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