New York Philharmonic/Muti – Beethoven’s Eroica

Verklärte Nacht, Op.4 [Original version]
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)

Glenn Dicterow & Marc Ginsberg (violins), Cynthia Phelps & Rebecca Young (violas) and Carter Brey & Eileen Moon (cellos) [Schoenberg]

New York Philharmonic
Riccardo Muti

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 28 November, 2009
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Riccardo Muti in Taipei (Taiwan) 2004. © Photograph : ©Silvia Lelli 2004This matinee concert was in a sense two events in one: a chamber music recital and a symphonic concert. The first half of the programme featured six members of the New York Philharmonic in a lushly romantic performance of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night). After the interval, Riccardo Muti led the Philharmonic in a stirring Beethoven ‘Eroica’.

Although these works are quite different in their scale and scope, they both represent the output of revolutionary composers at the point of making innovative and lasting changes to the future of music. Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht came at the beginning of a cusp that saw the transition from tonal to atonal music. This work is still tonal, but with key relationships thrown to the winds, creating uneasiness that would only grow greater in the composer’s later works. In the ‘Eroica’, Beethoven altered and advanced symphonic form from all that preceded it and from which he drew. Indeed, Schoenberg also saw himself a century later as the natural successor to that same Austro-German symphonic tradition.

Verklärte Nacht (later amplified by the composer for string orchestra) was played with sensitivity and with evident communication among the players that allowed each instrumental voice to be heard clearly whilst blending with the others to produce a richly radiant sound. Thanks to the placement of a screen behind the players the sound resonated into the hall quite effectively and pleasantly.

In Verklärte Nacht, Schoenberg adapted the tone-poem form that had been invented by Liszt and popularised by Richard Strauss to a chamber ensemble, setting a poem by Richard Dehmel in a virtually line-by-line fashion. The opening section depicts a couple walking by winter moonlight, but the music takes on a despairing tone as the woman tells her lover that she is bearing the child of another man whom she does not love. After a ‘moonlight’ interlude, the music becomes warm and distinctly masculine in character as the man responds that their love will cause the child to be transfigured so that she will bear it for him as if it were his own. The work concludes with glowing warmth that reflects the couple’s loving-embrace as they continue their walk in the night.

The performers succeeded admirably in capturing the music’s changing moods as the story progressed, segues between the poem’s sections carried out with great finesse. Although it is rather unusual for a chamber work to be played at an orchestral concert, the results certainly justified the decision, a showcase for some of the orchestra’s superb musicians and a richly satisfying musical experience.

In his numerous appearances as a guest-conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Riccardo Muti has generally programmed seldom-heard works, but at this matinee concert he conducted the Eroica (paired with Honegger’s Second Symphony for two evening concerts). Muti led a somewhat scaled-down Philharmonic, the string sections not so large as to overbalance the winds. The resulting sound was quite appropriate, allowing each voice in this highly polyphonic work to come through clearly – an effect also enhanced by the antiphonal seating of the violins – an innovation by the orchestra’s new music director, Alan Gilbert.

Muti gave each movement a carefully structured reading. As the symphony began, he set a tempo that neither dragged nor sped out of control, and restrained the volume – the opening chords are marked only forte – thus leaving room for louder passages to be heard with appropriate dynamic contrast. His handling of softer passages was similarly nuanced, so that the internal peaks and valleys within the opening movement’s sonata-form structure were distinctly formed. Muti evoked excellent playing from the orchestra, which was in top form. The strings conveyed incisive agitation and sweet lyricism. The winds were particularly strong with Liang Wang’s oboe solos standing out along with the horns. The trumpets and timpani provided accents that consistently heightened the music’s impact.

The second-movement funeral march was played with much solemnity, with the plaintive oboe and strings setting a mournful tone, but brighter moments were also given their due. The stirring horn theme at the movement’s midpoint was particularly well played, serving as a sort of keystone in the movement’s arch that culminated with the return of the opening sotto voce theme, this time broken apart and dying away pitifully. The scherzo provided some much needed relief from the lengthy and weighty movements that preceded it, but in Muti’s hands it was no mere throwaway, the orchestra tossing-off its tripping figures and syncopated rhythms with appropriate abandon. The trio was especially delightful, with the horns in fantastic form. Beethoven was an unsurpassed master of the theme-and-variations form, and the symphony’s finale is one of the finest examples of this technique, with a staggering multiplicity of textures, rhythms, fugues and other polyphonic combinations. Muti was in full control here, presenting each variation’s individual features whilst building up dramatically to the symphony’s stirring conclusion.

Muti will return for several weeks of concerts later this season, but his guest-conductor role with the Philharmonic must then come to an end, as he becomes music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra beginning with the 2010-2011 season. New York audiences, with whom Muti has enjoyed a warm relationship, can at least look forward to his annual visits here with that orchestra.

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