Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Muti and the Machine

Musikverein, 05/09/2011

Riccardo Muti, Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Bernard Rands: Danza Petrificada
Strauss: Tod und Verklärung, op. 24

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5, op. 47

So there were a couple of dodgy woodwind entries and the concertmaster’s intonation was a fraction off in the second movement solo of Shostakovich 5. These were the only lapses in the most technically flawless, risk-free and over-refined playing I’ve heard since, I don’t know, my last CSO concert. The closest we came to self-expression was two notes of crazy bassoon vibrato, straight out of Shostakovich’s Jazz Suites, on an entry, again, in the Allegretto of the Fifth. The Chicagoans returned to the Musikverein last night with a programme of Hindemith and Prokofiev, but the thought of enduring more music polished into oblivion was too much.

The programme opened with a commission from the orchestra’s 2010-11 season, Danza Petrificada by Bernard Rands. The native Brit has taken his adopted country to heart: this was a well-crafted piece of postmodern musical Americana more suggestive of Copland than the Mexican folk music claimed to have inspired it. The coda was the most promising part of the piece and yet ended abruptly, aborting a new theme that had only just been introduced. As this had been flagrantly signposted from the start, I felt short-changed some thematic development and am moved to note that Haydn would pull a cutesy little stunt like this only after he actually said something. Muti took a holiday to learn this work and I got the sense that he over-studied it; in the hands of an MTT it would have been slick and glib. More Catch-22s yet to come with the Shostakovich.

You could have heard a pin drop in the spotlessly clean opening to Tod und Verklärung. There were some carefully blended brass entries towards the end. Tempi were well-considered. And there I run out of nice things to say about a performance unrecognisable as Strauss, his rich tonal palette reduced to a uniform beige. Textures were opaque and with no phrasing to speak of, inner voices got lost.

Shostakovich 5 came off a little more successfully: there was that ‘think different’ bassoon moment, and Muti’s tempi in the finale imparted a great deal of sense lacking from most performances. Apropos this problematic movement, I remember an undergraduate lecture on Shostakovich 5 given by a Russian music scholar who shall remain nameless. We began with a video of Lenny’s breakneck finale – as shamefully tacky as his coda to Mahler 2 – juxtaposed against some turgid Soviet account, and followed by the raising of hands to indicate our preference; an exercise as stupid then as it would be now, the scary thing being it actually does still go on now. One option was intended to show up naive subscribers to discredited theories of dissidence, the other to suss who had read their Taruskin. The irony of this being a horribly Stalinist false dichotomy is almost too painful but it can only described as such, so dogmatically held was the position, ten times worse than nothing between these two extremes being deemed worthy of discussion, that dizzily fast and soporifically plodding were not extremes at all. It was this idiocy that Muti sensibly demolished, stealthily executing a modest acceleration planned well in advance of the D major coda and yet not imposed as early as the harp, snare drum and timpani transition from the delicate woodwind solos of the central section, a common pitfall. This avoided all the usual awkward gear shifts that make the normative extremes sound so contrived. Just a pity that the overbearing micromanagement which went into it led to such musically inhibited playing.

I haven’t written much about the other movements of the Shostakovich, and the less said about the mechanical routine here the better really. I even found myself longing for some of the Wiener Philharmoniker’s Schlamperei, so what better affirmation of the truism about a sterile performance being worse than a bad one.

The full score of the Rands can be accessed for free here.

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