New York Philharmonic/Muti Radu Lupu

Schumann
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54
Bruckner
Symphony No.6 in A

Radu Lupu (piano)

New York Philharmonic
Riccardo Muti


Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette

Reviewed: 23 January, 2008
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Riccardo Muti in Taipei (Taiwan) 2004. ©www.riccardomuti.com. Photograph : ©Silvia Lelli 2004Controversial as it may sound, sometimes it takes a visiting soloist to bring out the best from an orchestra – and the conductor. Radu Lupu is such an artist, and from his perfectly phrased and shaped entrance in Schumann’s Concerto, it was clear that something special was about to happen. In the opening tutti Riccardo Muti emulated Lupu’s lyrical and delicate approach and proved to be a most sympathetic collaborator throughout the performance. There were delicious nuances of tempo, shadings of dynamics and color, and perfect interplay between piano and orchestra.

Lupu is a relaxed presence, often reclining in his chair in a pose reminiscent of a famous photograph of Johannes Brahms. Constantly interacting with both the conductor and the Philharmonic musicians he managed to find just the right balance between featuring the solo part and weaving it into the orchestral texture, the latter realized with great sensitivity. This was a Romantic interpretation in the sense of taking liberties with tempos, the use of rubato, shaping phrases, and inserting subtle echoes on repeated motifs. Yet there was also Classical freshness – a transparency, lightness and Romanticism that combined for a spacious first movement, a breathtakingly beautiful Andante, and a lithe finale.

Bruckner’s symphonies are cut from a very different, much weightier cloth, of course, but this performance could have benefited from some of the orchestral refinement heard in the Schumann. All of a sudden it seemed as if the New York Philharmonic had gone from Technicolor to black and white. Different dynamics – not really soft, loud, and louder – but all monochromatic. Intense musical engagement had given way to routine playing and matter-of-fact conducting. There is a school of thought that treats Bruckner’s music with a hands-off approach, no interpretative engagement and letting the “cathedrals of sound” speak for themselves. While this might work to a degree in the more static sections, and adding block after block of sound to build huge climaxes, there still needs to be structure to underpin these edifices, or they ultimately sound hollow.

Klaus Tennstedt, remembering his final appearances with this orchestra conducting Bruckner’s mighty Eighth Symphony, brought such expertise. And he also knew how to get personal in the lyrical second themes. Riccardo Muti stayed outside of the music, leaving the beautiful Adagio a pale shadow of what it can be. It started much too loud, without mystery, and not even Liang Wang’s plangent oboe solo could establish the right mood against such a workaday background. The perfect German word for this movement is “Innigkeit”, defined by the Webster Dictionary as “poignant intimacy of feeling”, something which was sorely missing here. Similarly, the chorales in the codas of the outer movements were brass fanfares without meaning. The scherzo moved along dutifully, and the finale lacked even the rhythmic precision one expects from this orchestra. Muti’s approach highlighted Bruckner’s lack of melodic inventiveness and repetitive tendencies. At the premiere of this work Gustav Mahler made cuts and re-scored some sections. Such practice is now rare, but it needs someone with a deep understanding of Bruckner to bring out his best qualities. Riccardo Muti doesn’t seem to be that conductor.

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