New York Philharmonic/Muti Thomas Quasthoff – Haydn & Brahms

Symphony No.89 in F
Armida – Se dal suo braccio oppresso; Teco lo guida
L’anima del filosofo ossia Orfeo ed Euridice – Il pensier sta negli oggetti; Chi spira e non spero
Serenade No.1 in D, Op.11

Thomas Quasthoff (bass-baritone)

New York Philharmonic
Riccardo Muti

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 22 January, 2009
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Riccardo Muti in Taipei (Taiwan) 2004. © Photograph : ©Silvia Lelli 2004In his appearances as Principal Guest Conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Riccardo Muti has generally programmed seldom-heard works, and this concert was no exception. Indeed, in the Philharmonic’s long history (this concert was its 14,759th!) Haydn’s Symphony No.89 had been programmed only once before, 40 years ago. No.88 won immediate acclaim as one of his greatest, but No.89 (along with its two successors) has remained overshadowed by the ‘Paris’ group, the ‘Oxford’ Symphony (No.92) and the dozen ‘London’ symphonies (93-104). Muti and the Philharmonic made a plausible case for inclusion of No.89 in today’s concert repertory, but it still lacked the star quality of Haydn’s better-known symphonies.

The resulting sound from the Philharmonic seemed quite appropriate to the symphony, with the string sections not so large as to overbalance Haydn’s prescribed complement of winds – one flute and pairs of oboes, bassoons and horns. The opening sonata-form Vivace was engaging, the music surging forward, with the violins maintaining a brisk pace as solos were proffered by the wind principals. The animated second subject belied Muti’s restrained demeanour. Careful changes in dynamics allowed the mood of the Andante’s main theme to be varied effectively for its repeat and Muti’s strong downbeat attacks emphasised the dance character of this music.

Thomas QuasthoffThomas Quasthoff brought extraordinary vocal beauty and consummate musicianship to two opera arias from each of Haydn’s last two completed operas – “Armida” and “L’anima del filosofo ossia Orfeo ed Euridice” (The Spirit of Philosophy, or Orfeo and Euridice). In each case, the aria is sung by an elder relative of the title character: Idreno, the uncle of the sorceress Armida, who abets his niece’s evil wiles directed at the crusader Rinaldo; and the Theban King Creonte, father of Euridice.

In the dramatic “Armida” arias, Quasthoff demonstrated the breadth of his vocal range, with seamless transitions between its lower depths and his silvery upper register. He used his ample power judiciously to convey Idreno’s sinister intentions, whilst creating just the right balance with the orchestra.

Creonte’s arias were, as their opera’s title suggests, much more philosophical, both in content and in musical atmosphere. The first, ‘Il pensier sta negli oggetti’, expresses the King’s recognition that one must be adaptable as circumstances change, offering the rather cryptic metaphor of a bird that may think it can fly, but that unfortunately does not realize that its foot is tied down. Finally, in ‘Chi spira e non spera’, Creonte, at his daughter’s grave, sings that it is better to die than to live without hope. Quasthoff’s contemplative interpretations suited these arias, with Haydn’s vocal lines floating softly above the orchestral accompaniments. It is difficult to believe that this opera went virtually unheard and without ever being staged until some 160 years after it was composed.

Brahms’s Serenade No.1, composed when he was in his mid-twenties, evolved over a three-year period from the composer’s original conception as chamber music to a work for chamber orchestra, and finally to a score for an orchestra comparable to the ensembles used in Beethoven’s first four symphonies.

Muti struck an apposite balance between the rustic charm of the Serenade’s chamber music origin and the more complex sonorities and harmonies that foreshadow Brahms’s later orchestral works. Throughout the Serenade, Muti respected the distinctive character of each of its six movements whilst sustaining the work’s line so as to create a thoroughly-engaging performance. Beyond revisions Brahms retained the prominent role of the woodwinds and horns: the clarinet and bassoons stood out especially well. The horn motif that appears throughout was played beautifully by principal Philip Myers whilst the trumpets and timpani added touches of grandeur throughout and often served to create a symphonic texture.

The warmth of Muti’s relationship with the orchestra, and with the New York audience, was evident both at the beginning and end of the concert. He will be missed here when he becomes music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2010 and must cut short his guest conductor role with the Philharmonic.

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