Vienna Philharmonic/Muti in New York – 1

Nobilissima visione – Suite
Symphony No.9 in C, D944 (Great)

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Riccardo Muti

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 3 March, 2006
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City

The Vienna Philharmonic visits Carnegie Hall annually, but New York appearances by Riccardo Muti have become rare events since he left his post as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1992. This was the first of three New York concerts from the VPO and Muti and it was an evening of superb music-making.

The suite from Hindemith’s Nobilissima visione was a revelation – appropriately so, since it was culled by the composer from his score for a ballet depicting the life of St Francis of Assisi. From the very first bar, the delicacy and perfect unison of the strings captured completely the serenity of the saint’s meditations. The ensuing rondo, depicting St. Francis’s mystical wedding to Lady Poverty, featured outstanding playing by the orchestra’s woodwind section, with prominent flute and clarinet solos.

The second movement opens with a jolly march, featuring piccolo and snare drum, to portray the approach of a band of soldiers, but the mood turns dark as the soldiers brutally attack and rob a traveller. Muti handled the fugal trio with precision, maintaining a balance between the discordant string figures and the martial brass and percussion, until the march theme returned and then faded away with the soldiers’ departure. A sumptuous Pastorale brought the orchestra’s rich string sound to the fore once again, with a beautifully played oboe solo evoking the sound of a shepherd’s pipe and bringing the movement to a quiet close.

The passacaglia that concludes the work is a tour de force that brings the full forces of the orchestra into play as the majestic theme, first stated by the trombones, is subjected to some twenty variations. Muti showed himself to be an ideal interpreter of Hindemith’s highly contrapuntal compositional style, bringing out the clarity of each instrumental line while maintaining the dramatic arc of the movement as a whole. Virtually every instrument had an opportunity to shine as the theme made its way from one to another in dizzying succession. Of particular note along the way were a contrapuntal variation on the violins and horns, a quiet variation featuring flute, violas and triangle, and another matching the violas with the trombones, tuba and horns. Muti built the music to a peak and then, after a sudden quietening, gradually brought the orchestra back to a higher level of intensity and volume until the theme returned on the trombones for the last time and the work ended with a climactic, resonant chord.

Schubert’s Ninth Symphony is as familiar a part of the standard symphonic repertory as the Hindemith work is a relative rarity. Yet Muti did not take it for granted, producing a carefully nuanced reading that sustained attention.

Muti took the opening Andante at a measured pace, making a dramatic transition to the Allegro. He maintained and built interest through the variety of tonal shadings, tempos and dynamics that he elicited from the orchestra, with which he seemed to be in perfect rapport. The players were responsive even to his sometimes-minimal gestures. The second movement, Andante con moto, contrasted the delicacy of the winds’ playing of the opening subject – particularly the lyrical oboe solo – with the strength of the alternating ff string passages. In the movement’s softer interludes, the singing quality of the Vienna Philharmonic strings once again was on display, with the cellos standing out particularly.

Muti attacked the scherzo consistently with its Allegro vivace marking, swaying on the podium to the lyrical second subject in the strings. The more leisurely pace of the stately trio provided a delightful contrast. As elsewhere in the symphony, Muti and the orchestra excelled in contrapuntal passages. In the final movement, also marked Allegro vivace, the strings set a galloping pace after the opening fanfare, with rapid swirling figures first in the violins and soon afterward in the cellos and double basses. Muti maintained this momentum almost non-stop, even in the movement’s softer passages, taking at a rollicking gait the subordinate theme taken up first by the brass and then the strings and finally giving way to the coda that brought the symphony to a forceful and dramatic conclusion.

As an encore, Muti led the orchestra in a waltz by Josef Strauss, Sphärenklänge (Music of the Spheres), Op.235. From the harp’s beautiful introduction and its accompaniment of the violins as they voiced the lush principal waltz theme, to the subtle accents of piccolo and triangle and the stirring playing of the brass at the finish, the orchestra exuded the spirit of Vienna as only it can. Could it be that these musicians’ hearts beat in triple-time?

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