Thirty-five years ago, when the Philharmonia Orchestra was facing its darkest hour, a new, young conductor stepped forward as a potential saviour. He was Riccardo Muti and the photos of his first concert in Croydon on December 2 1972 show a fiery Italian with jet-black hair imposing his command.
Not so different from today, really. To mark the 35th anniversary of Muti’s first appearance with the orchestra, the Philharmonia offered a re-run on the South Bank on Sunday. Two of the pieces played in 1972 were revisited, Muti’s command of the orchestra now looks almost presidential, and – yes – the hair is as black as ever.
One other unchanging feature of Muti’s conducting is the high quality of playing he gets from his orchestras. From the opening notes of Beethoven’s Overture “Die Weihe des Hauses” (“The Consecration of the House”) the Philharmonia sounded proud and imposing, a glowing ensemble built on the foundation of a firm bass line. We were evidently passing through the portals of a grand establishment.
The only doubts about this concert surfaced where they were probably least expected. As the centrepiece of the programme, Radu Lupu played Schumann’s Piano Concerto – the one work that did not feature back in 1972 – and eccentricity intruded. Lupu has always been the dreamer and here his playing veered between a private world of lovely, but barely audible, lyrical murmurings and long passages where the music should take wing, but effortfully remained earthbound.
Left to their own devices, Muti and the Philharmonia were on top form. The concert ended with a stunning performance of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Every canvas was vividly depicted, from the Italian landscape of “Il vecchio castello” (“The Old Castle”) to the wit of the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks. Solo playing was excellent (especially first trumpet) and the full orchestra offered an exhibition of glamorous tone paintings of its own. In the past year I have heard Muti give deadeningly formal performances with top orchestras from Vienna and Chicago, but here everything was alive, just as it must have been in 1972.
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