Sunday, January 29, 2023

Muti and the CSO play Beethoven, Lyadov, and "Pictures"

Riccardo Muti conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, orchestrated by Maurice Ravel.


Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall,
Costa Mesa

Riccardo Muti.
“Generosity” was the word that came to mind during the Philharmonic Society of Orange County’s January orchestral concert at the Segerstrom Concert Hall where, before a capacity audience, Riccardo Muti conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the second concert of its current North American tour, itself part of the CSO’s 2022-23 season that also sees the conclusion of Muti’s tenure as its Music Director.

Indeed, that generosity was manifest before the concert itself when, in an interview with Classical KUSC’s Brian Lauritzen, the orchestra’s Principal tuba player Gene Pokorny and piccolo/flutist Jennifer Gunn gave patently sincere and heartfelt tributes both to their colleagues as individuals and to the CSO’s collective identity and commitment. And the generosity extended to Maestro Muti himself, who before raising his baton to launch Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, requested the audience to stand for a minute’s silence in memory of the victims of California’s two recent mass shootings at Monterey Park and Oakland.

As for the performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92, “generous” was an appropriate epithet as well. Lasting a solid 42 minutes, due to a (yes, generous) clutch of repeats which included the expositions of both the first movement and finale and omitted only the scherzo second half in the labyrinth that is the symphony’s Presto third movement, it had a warmth, amplitude and freshness that belied the fact that these players must have performed the symphony countless times.

Maestro Muti’s tempo for the first movement’s long Poco sostenuto introduction couldn’t have been far off Beethoven’s requested metronome of quarter note=69, resulting not so much in a sense of wide-ranging preparation for what is to come, but rather of the main drama of the movement already being under way but just beneath the surface, with the uprushing dotted scalic figures that pervade the introduction having a feeling of positive eagerness to “get going.”

Beethoven in 1814, two years after
completing the Seventh Symphony.
At the same time the woodwind chording in their long unisons spanning above those scales had a relishable precision of balance that clarified the many modulations with which Beethoven controls the levels of tension that ebb and flow in the introduction, so that the main Vivace exposition, when it finally arrived after the faux-hesitations that precede it, surged forward with naturalness and inevitability rather than any sudden jolt.

The second movement Allegretto maintained a steady, implacable tread, balancing breadth and forward motion, with in its opening measures the lower strings carefully distinguishing between piano and pianissimo statements of the main theme. Both the Presto and the Allegro con brio finale had all the requisite energy and precision without any speed records being attempted. Beethoven marks no speeding-up for the finale's tumultuous coda, and this performance had no gratuitous hastening, simply a master conductor and his great orchestra enabling Beethoven's cumulation of harmonic tension and dynamic pressure (the only place where his climaxes escalate from fortissimo to fff) to do all the heavy lifting necessary.

Mussorgsky in 1874, the year that he
composed Pictures at an Exhibition.
While this performance of Beethoven’s Seventh demonstrated that it is perfectly possible to balance full-sized string sections with his Classical woodwind and brass pairs undoubled (as far as could be seen) it took the full panoply that Ravel employs in his orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition to really show off what the Chicago Symphony can produce at full cry.

Along with all else that it is, the Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures is also a real “concerto for orchestra,” and its opening Promenade immediately demonstrated how justified was tubaist Gene Pokorny’s admiration for his fellow CSO brass players, who richly clothed Mussorgsky’s musical self-portrait, arriving as spectator and admirer of his late friend Viktor Hartmann’s drawings and paintings.

Comparably showcased were the orchestra’s lower woodwind in I Gnomus and II The Old Castle, separated by the Promenade this time truncated, and as thoughtful in its cool low horn and high woodwind alternations as the opening had been brazenly confident. After the spectator shakes himself back to deliberate attention in a second intercalated Promenade, his attention is drawn to III Tuileries, but here the children’s play, delicately delineated in upper woodwind and strings, was somewhat more sedate than is usually the case. Then Mr. Pokorny's fellow low brass player Michael Mulcahy came to the fore on tenor tuba with as songfully eloquent a solo to open IV Bydlo as I have ever heard.

Maurice Ravel in 1925, three
years after Koussevitzky's
commission to orchestrate
Pictures at an Exhibition.
After the ox wagon’s crushingly heavy roll to the foreground and then slow recession out of ear-shot, the last of the Promenades (Ravel omitted to orchestrate the fifth and final one in Mussorgsky's original between Pictures VI and VII) was even more reflective, and that mood seemed to carry over into V Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells, where, though immaculately crisp, the flutes’ dance was again a little more measured than usual.

In VI Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle, the latter’s stuttering muted trumpet was less wheedling and more assertive than we normally hear, suggesting that for once he was giving his overbearing countryman as good as he got. As with the previous fast movements, VII The Market Place at Limoges scurried a little less, but the plunge into VIII Catacombs was as awe-inspiring as ever, as was the precipitation from the peak of IX The Hut on Fowl’s Legs (Baba-Yaga)’s flight to the splendor of X The Great Gate of Kiev.

Viktor Hartmann's unbuilt design for
the Bogatyr Gates at Kiev (Kyiv).
So granitically implacable was the incarnation by the CSO’s full forces of this final movement that it felt not so much a celebration of as a full-frontal assault upon a structure (which in fact remained unbuilt) at what we now properly spell as Kyiv. Indeed, the two quiet woodwind sections that relieve this movement’s overwhelming force were long-drawn and lamenting enough in effect (definitely not senza espressione, as marked) as to make one wonder whether there wasn’t an interpretative subtext here, in view of current events.

But the second half of this memorable concert was far from entirely concerned with spectacular orchestral effects. Before the Mussorgsky/Ravel blockbuster there had been a rare chance to enjoy live one of the exquisite miniature tone-poems of the famously self-critical and indolent Anatoly Lyadov (1855-1914).

Anatoly Lyadov.
This was his The Enchanted Lake Op. 62, composed in 1919, eight minutes of delicate woodwind, celesta, and harp figuration nestling within a soft, intricate texture of divided, mostly muted strings, richly nuanced by the CSO players, and described by the French musicologist André Lischke as "the quivering of the water (divided strings) and the sparkling of the stars which are reflected there (flute, celesta), harp)."

Giacomo Puccini.
And when the cheers for The Great Gate of Kiev's roof-rattling final climax had finally died down after the capacity audience repeatedly called Riccardo Muti back to the platform, there was yet another treat in store, and one that was not listed in the printed program. 

Returning to his Italian roots, the conductor led an encore that again he dedicated to the mass shooting victims. This was a devastatingly heartfelt account of the Intermezzo that divides the middle two Acts of Puccini’s third opera, Manon Lescaut, written between 1889 and 1892. Generous indeed. 


Chicago Symphony Orchestra, presented by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, Renée & Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa, Tuesday, January 24, 2023, 8 p.m. 
Images: The performance: Todd Rosenberg; Riccardo Muti: Conductor website; Beethoven, Mussorgsky, Ravel, Hartmann illustration, Lyadov: Wikimedia Commons; Puccini: BBC. 

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