Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Chicago Symphony Orchestra @ Royal Festival Hall, London

5 October 2007

The South Bank’s Classic International season began with this concert from Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, rare visitors to these shores.

Southbank Centre

Southbank Centre (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

And they broke the seal with an account of Tchaikovsky’s Pathtique symphony.

The dynamic range of this piece is a rarity in Tchaikovsky symphonies, and showed off the Hall’s acoustic, the bass impact slightly lessened after a midweek adjustment.

No matter, for Muti carved a dramatic first movement that had a deeply felt bassoon solo, then leaping from the stage as the faster Allegro took hold, recognising also when to draw back to allow the yearning second theme some room. A beautifully paced Waltz and helter-skelter Scherzo followed, before the emotional outpouring of the last movement, in good hands thanks to clarinet and bassoon once again, not to mention the sonorous cello and bass sections. Muti kept an iron grip on the tempo of the finale, but still allowed plenty of room for expression.

After the chill wind of the Pathtique‘s closing bars, Hindemith’s Nobilissima Visione suite cast a ray of warmth. Often regarded unfairly as a dry sounding composer, Hindemith shows here a resourcefulness of orchestral colour, not to mention his familiar aptitude for melodies that make sense despite their unusual contours.

The suite, three movements lifted from the eleven offered by the complete ballet, contains some exotic surprises, and Muti took care to contrast the solemn introduction with a light footed Rondo before the sparkling dance music of the March took hold. The crowning glory of this piece is the Passacaglia, its theme ringing out from the brass section, and Muti paced this perfectly as it built towards a stellar conclusion.

While Hindemith employs some interesting orchestral devices in Nobilissima Visione, Scriabin uses the orchestra to great excess in the Poem of Ecstasy, an ideal closing showpiece. That’s not to say this piece is texturally inflated – it isn’t – but with nine horns and five trumpets employed it is never anything less than full-bodied! Muti has a long association with this piece, and he coaxed a superb performance from the brass in particular, the exotic orchestral colours and surging melodies making for heady music indeed as we moved to a blazing C major climax.

By complete contrast an affectionate Muti offered a hushed encore of the Entr’acte from Schubert’s Rosamunde ballet, carefully phrasing every nuance as the strings were instructed to play well within themselves, while the conductor stepped back to admire their sound. One of many highlights in a special evening.

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