Philharmonia Muti

Violin Concerto in D, Op.61
Symphony No.9 in C, D944 (Great C major)

Vadim Repin (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Riccardo Muti

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 27 January, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

I have been waiting for this concert for nigh on ten years. The last time Riccardo Muti conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra in a concert at the Royal Festival Hall was on 18 April 1996, near the end of the orchestra’s 50th-anniversary season (not 1995 as the bizarrely selective chronology of the orchestra’s 60 years suggested – which even missed out its present chief conductor’s move up from principal guest conductor!). Then, Muti paired Haydn’s ‘Maria Theresia’ Symphony (No.48) with one of his beloved Cherubini Masses. To see him back on the platform, in London, especially after his recent disappearing act when he refused to conduct Verdi’s “La forza del destino” at Covent Garden late last year (on the basis that Royal Opera had slightly tampered with the borrowed La Scala production), was something I had not entirely believed possible. That there was a tangible air of expectation in the RFH there was no doubt.

Admittedly the reaction was not as wildly hedonistic as on one of Tennstedt’s returns … and you must understand that I grew up in my college years with Abbado at the LSO, Tennstedt at the London Philharmonic, and Muti at the Philharmonia. Tennstedt we will – sadly – never see again and Abbado perhaps never-again with the LSO; so Muti back with the Philharmonia is a solelink to my – and obviously not just mine – formative musical past.

And, regardless of the quality of the music-making, it took me back some 25 years – better than any anti-ageing cream, and thankfully, quality was in abundance.

Muti, now with discreet glasses, seems to have mellowed slightly over the years. Here, with Vadim Repin, he produced a rapt rendition of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, which seemed to hang occasion in the air, almost timelessly. Perhaps the ravishing beauty of Repin’s silvery tone and the Philharmonia’s peerless accompaniment negated forward propulsion, but this was a strikingly original look at the concerto, perfectly valid in its ownway.

In the finale, Robin O’Neill’s delicious bassoon solo brought a smile to Muti’s face, and that happy demeanour was carried through into a magisterial performance of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, which brought out what could only be described as Muti’s playful side. He certainly seemed to be enjoying himself, and the players responded with as fine orchestral playing as I’ve heard in this hall for many a year.

Muti – score before him, but typically his gaze often just higher than the orchestra he was conducting, as if finding inspiration in the organ encasement – had mined Schubert’s music for a wealth of incidental detail that brought up the performance with countless felicities that both amazed and amused. The way, for example, in the first movement, the first violins ending a phrase and the cellos starting one seemed to create an ephemeral glissando between the two (a visual trick perhaps, given that Muti swung 180 degrees between them – not for him antiphonal violins). And how he took great pains to get the Philharmonia to play extremely quietly, with no loss of tone quality; and how the wind, brass, and horns played their cotton socks off for him.

One might have lost a little in the overall architecture, but I suspect that is not because Muti’s view of the structure (cavalier attitude to Schubert’s marked repeats aside) is lacking; rather that one was hearing parts of the score usually overlooked and so one’s concentration was diverted from Muti’s grip on the work.

Whereas in the concerto Muti favoured a scaled-down orchestra, the symphony was given with full resources – and yet the wonder was how adaptable and delicate it all was. Quite simply a long-looked-for joy, as good in performance as hoped-for inexpectation. Hopefully Muti will be back with the Philharmonia on a regular basis. One wishes the Philharmonia a very happy 60th-birthday year, an orchestra obviously in fantastic fettle.

A date for the diary: Muti and La Scala Philharmonic, Royal Festival Hall, 27 May.

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