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Stormy weather

Kultur- und Kongresszentrum Luzern
08/28/2011 -  
Bernard Rands: Danza Petrificada
Richard Strauss: Tod und Verklärung op. 24
Dimitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 op. 47

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Riccardo Muti (conductor)

R. Muti (© Todd Rosenberg)

Whilst New Yorkers were busy battening down the hatches as Hurricane Irene prepared to lash their city, Lucerne – actually basking in late summer sunshine – received a veritable whirlwind from Chicago.

This was the first visit to the Lucerne Festival by the Chicagoers under Riccardo Muti, who took over as the CSO’s Principal Conductor last autumn. As a greeting from his new homeland he brought with him a nine-minute piece by a contemporary British-born American composer Bernard Rands, composed last year. The work was composed at Muti’s request to mark the bicentennial anniversary of Mexico’s independence and revolution, Danza Petrificada and takes its title from a stanza of Octavio Paz: “. . . a banquet of forms, a petrified dance under the clouds that make and unmake and never stop making themselves always in transit toward their future forms.” Danza Petrificada is not in any sense a petrified dance.

Rands avoids any typical Mexican dance rhythms. Whilst it is certainly audience-friendly, avoiding any dissonance, it lacks sufficient musical interest. It’s a long 9 minutes. The work calls at the end for a large percussion battery (which ensures a polite level of audience acceptance) and ends with an abrupt scream from the orchestra to signify it’s all over, but it fails to convince. Muti, not known as a lover of modern works, seemed disinterested.

Richard Strauss, on the other hand, is a composer that Muti has conducted over his career (he is now a youthful 70). Muti and the Chicagoers gave an utterly glorious performance of Death and Transfiguration; this is repertoire in which the Italian maestro revelled. Strauss’s brand of Romanticism fits Muti’s musical temperament well. Muti contrasted the passionate and tender sections with the vehement fury of the rest. The performance conveyed all of the richness and atmosphere of Strauss’s evocative score; the warmth and richness of the sound at the piece’s apotheosis was quite overwhelming.

Muti’s style of music-making emphasizes clarity and precision. His performances never descend into vulgarity, he rarely employs excessive dynamics or tear-jerking warmth (he has shown little interest in Wagner, Mahler, Ravel or Debussy). In Britain (where he now hardly ever conducts) there are those who find his approach rather cold. The critics agree however that in Verdi he is currently unsurpassed.

So the main interest of the evening was to hear how Muti might depict Shostakovich’s ambiguous Fifth Symphony. In line with Muti’s above-mentioned qualities, the performance did not descend into vulgarity (the Scherzo certainly has room in which to do so), but it lacked edge, a degree of mania and Russian bite. The sound of the orchestra is ideal for Strauss but too refined for my taste in Shostakovich. Muti was most convincing in the Largo, where he displayed a degree of reverent piety for the music: one could have heard a penny drop at some stages and one member of the audience dutifully complied.

There were however many plus points in the performance: the principal woodwind – particularly the silvery flute – were always a joy to hear, the legendary Chicago brass never disappointed, the strings displayed an almost military precision in the final climax which brought the muscular timpanist to his feet and the work to its earth-shattering close.

John Rhodes



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