Muti, Chicago Symphony remake Russian showpieces in their own image

February 02, 2015
By Allan Kozinn
Riccardo Muti conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music of Scriabin ad Prokofiev Sunday afternoon at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Tod Rosenberg

Riccardo Muti conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music of Scriabin and Prokofiev Sunday afternoon at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

​The program that Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra offered at Carnegie Hall on Sunday afternoon said a lot about the degree to which Muti has refashioned the orchestra in his own image during his five years at its helm, and perhaps a bit less about the two works he conducted — Scriabin’s Symphony No. 1 in E major (Op. 26) and Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky (Op. 78).

Both are passionate and often intense scores, though their motivations are very different. Scriabin’s was personal: he meant his symphony to be a grand paean to the ennobling power of Art, and to that end, he fashioned a six-movement work, with a finale that boasts a poem to that effect (his own creation) set for mezzo-soprano and tenor soloists and chorus. The passions that drive the Prokofiev are mainly professional and patriotic – the concert work is drawn from his 1938 film score in which the Russians repel Teutonic invaders – but all the same, it is a high-energy, powerhouse piece.

​Each work embodies ample technical demands, and it will surprise no one to learn that Muti and his players aced them. The Scriabin, started in 1899 and completed in 1900, is steeped in post-Wagnerian Romanticism, with evident debts to Wagner, Strauss and Mahler, and a language that is almost entirely Germanic and scarcely Russian. There is little of the chromatic magic that would illuminate Scriabin’s orchestral writing (and, for that matter, his keyboard writing) in years to come, yet throughout the work one hears a delicacy in the string writing, and a pastoral quality in the wind lines, that are thoroughly enchanting. But amid all that, there is also drama – a touch of it in the short, brisk second movement, and a good deal more in the choral finale, which Scriabin’s builds to a full-throttle, brassy finish.

​Muti was at his most intriguing in the gentle, pastoral writing. The orchestra’s strings produced a warm tone that radiated even in the most hushed pianissimos, and its winds were beautifully focused, whether in birdlike warbling figures or dreamy, floating lines. The string sound was so alluring, and the dynamics so fluid, in fact, that the performance made one think, more than usual, about the cross-pollination between today’s peripatetic conductors and their ensembles. Usually, we think in terms of how a conductor shapes an orchestra’s sound. We hear less about the other side of that exchange, but the Chicagoans’ performance suggested that ideas about sound flow both ways. ​

​When Muti inherited the Philadelphia Orchestra, which he led from 1980 to 1992, that ensemble was known for the huge, lush string sound cultivated by Eugene Ormandy and, before him, Leopold Stokowski. Muti tamed that sound to conform to his own Apollonian view of an orchestra’s ideal sound. But he did not vanquish it entirely, and in the rich slow movements of the Scriabin, it sounded as if he had imported some of that Philadelphia string magic.

​Not that the Chicago Symphony’s strings were ever lacking much, but here they sounded richer and more alluring than ever. They were equally powerful in the Prokofiev, starting from the score’s lapel-grabbing opening figure. Actually, it’s nothing but a C, stretched over four octaves, with tremolando violins, cellos and basses, and a rapid diminuendo, followed by a quick three-note turn in the winds (also playing in open octaves), but it could hardly be more effective, and the Chicago strings never lost the dark luster that Prokofiev demands.

​Yet for all that, both performances seemed emotionally distant. That, no doubt, was a reflection of the refinement Muti brought to the works, and refinement, particularly today, is a good and rare thing. But the Scriabin, particularly in his choral finale, is an ecstatic celebration of Art as “life’s bright hope.” Here, it was less an ecstatic celebration than a thoughtful, polished performance of a piece calling for an ecstatic celebration. It was lovely and precise, but it never took flight.

​Much the same could be said of the Alexander Nevsky cantata. Prokofiev, with his trademark blend of steel and ice, paints an extraordinary picture of a 13th-century war in which much was at stake, and he wrote it at a time when the Russians were warily eying the Germans, who were cranking up their war machine. But much of Muti’s performance seemed strangely relaxed. Now and then, they produced a healthy fortissimo, but what you really want in this piece – edge of the seat tension – just wasn’t there.

​The vocal soloists – Alisa Kolosova, mezzo-soprano, and Sergey Skorokhodov, tenor, in the Scriabin, and Kolosova in the Prokofiev – were expressive, focused and beyond reproach. So was the very fine Chicago Symphony Chorus, which gave rich, beautifully balanced accounts of both works.

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