New York Philharmonic/Muti – Liszt, Elgar & Prokofiev

Les préludes
In the South (Alassio) – Concert Overture, Op.50
Romeo and Juliet [selections: Montagues and Capulets – Juliet the Young Girl – Madrigal – Minuet – Masks – Romeo and Juliet – The Death of Tybalt – Friar Laurence – Romeo and Juliet Before Parting – Romeo and Juliet’s Tomb]

New York Philharmonic
Riccardo Muti

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 19 November, 2009
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Riccardo Muti in Taipei (Taiwan) 2004. © Photograph : ©Silvia Lelli 2004Throughout much of the 2007-8 New York Philharmonic season, many journalists – and more than a few musicians in the orchestra – were speculating that Riccardo Muti might succeed Lorin Maazel as music director. Muti instead accepted an offer from the Chicago Symphony and the Philharmonic surprised by selecting Alan Gilbert. This program provided a tantalizing suggestion of what might have been in New York.

Liszt’s Les préludes has been a showpiece in the Philharmonic’s repertoire for a century and a half; the Philharmonic also made the first American recording of the work, in 1924. Muti opened the work with pianissimo pizzicatos that would have been particularly evocative were it not for coughs and rustling from the audience. Muti’s micro-managed rubato in the opening phrases went beyond what is indicated in the score and interrupted the music’s natural flow, but hit its pace in the second half of the introduction. Muti’s expressive phrasing brought a passionate sweep to not only the big tune but the melodies and countermelodies of the second theme. The central section was surprisingly evocative of early Wagner, and while Muti took a slower-than-usual tempo, the music seemed to have more momentum and force; the final section, starting with the return of the second theme, was also enormously satisfying, as Muti ratcheted-up the excitement with each transformation of the theme in the work’s final section, and a rhythmically intense delivery of the coda.

Riccardo Muti. © Photograph: Photo ShafflerElgar might not be the first composer with which you’d associate Muti, but his approach to In the South (which he has recorded with the La Scala Philharmonic), inspired by a vacation Elgar and his wife took to Alassio in the south of Italy, swept away the cobwebs of interpretive tradition. This was not the Elgar of Barbirolli, Boult, Handley or Hickox. Never in my concert-going experience has Ottorino Respighi sounded so Edwardian – that may sound a little sarcastic, but Muti’s approach to this work was refreshingly and entirely satisfying, summoning not only the scintillating orchestral colors and lucid orchestral balances that this repertoire calls for, but bringing a broad spectrum of moods.

Prokofiev’s score for the ballet of Romeo and Juliet provides a Rorschach test for conductors. Some stick to Prokofiev’s suites while others choose their own selections. Muti’s choice brought together some of the most popular scenes combined with others that put the focus on more delicate colors and varied melodic inventiveness. Muti’s selection, with a little re-sequencing and removal of ‘Madrigal’, is identical to that recorded in 1957 by the Philharmonic conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos. From Muti and the Philharmonic there was plenty of visceral wallop without sacrificing balance and detail. The trajectory of the movements – from rhythmically incisive and dance-like to soaring and melodic – was carried off with unexpected drama; yes, it served to showcase the orchestra’s astounding qualities, but this particular selection was musically satisfying as a whole.

For the first time this season (out of five concerts I have attended), the Philharmonic sounded like the world-class ensemble it is. The orchestra was noticeably more physically engaged with the music (particularly the Elgar) and delivered enormous dynamics and color – a signature of the Maazel years – that were nowhere in evidence so far this season. Muti for his part was more enlivened and animated than I’ve seen him in previous Philharmonic appearances, and looks to be on a musical roll.

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