Talk about musical exhumation. Riccardo Muti, an Italian maestro revered for his patrician civility, returned to the New York Philharmonic on Thursday and brought with him a rather horrific example of arcane Germanic expressionism. The vehicle, never performed by this orchestra and seldom performed anywhere, was
Paul Hindemith’s opera Sancta Susanna, a youthful indiscretion dating back to 1921.

It turned out to be shamelessly, heroically sleazy, yet often fascinating, a psychosexual period piece dabbling in sacrilegious Grand Guignol. The score seethes eerily for 25 minutes with taut post-Straussian ardour, while the lip-smacking text
by August Stramm graphically explores dark doings at a sinister cloister. The protagonist is a chronically repressed nun who, one moon-drunk night, rips the loincloth from a huge crucifix, nakedly embraces the Jesus figure, recoils from a symbolic spider and ecstatically begs to be buried alive amid stones and brick. No, this isn’t The Sound of Music.

Muti, who has long championed this quirky indulgence, seemed to revel in Hindemith’s gnarled symphonic splendour, and the Philharmonic responded appreciatively. When they could be heard over the din, the Russian soprano Tatiana Serjan and the Austrian mezzo-soprano Brigitte Pinter performed stoically.

For a serene opening to the quasi-festive festivities, Muti presided over some stately Cherubini, the Overture in G major. Then he accommodated a central storm, Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto as dashed out by the whizz kid du jour, Lang Lang. It would be less than realistic to describe this partnership as an artistic marriage made in heaven.

When he isn’t resurrecting the screams of Hindemith, Muti personifies mellow restraint. Lang Lang invariably personifies brash indulgence. The conductor tried, often in vain, to sustain equilibrium while the pianist, though somewhat subdued by his own worst standards, did his wild and splashy thing. Despite a few exquisite details, the results tended to be incoherent – unsteady, blurry, strident under pressure. Unfazed, Lang Lang came back for the indulgent jolt of a solo encore, a bit of folksy impressionism from his native China.

It was a weird and wilful night at the Philharmonic.

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