Pairing that knocks ’em dead

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A chill breeze is blowing through the streets of the windy city. For as long as anyone can remember, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has had a run of prestigious, long-serving music directors, but since the departure of Daniel Barenboim last year a “Situations Vacant” notice has been pinned to the front door.

Meanwhile, Riccardo Muti, the equally long-serving music director of La Scala, Milan, has found himself conductor without portfolio. Following his abrupt departure from Milan in 2005, Muti has filled his diary by cherry-picking some of the best guest engagements on offer around the world.

One might have thought there was a common answer to these problems, but apparently not: it seems Muti is reluctant to take on the position of music director with an American orchestra (the New York Philharmonic was also said to have wanted him), probably because he does not like the fund-raising responsibilities that come as part of the job description in the US.

The outcome has been compromise on both sides. The CSO now has Bernard Haitink, enjoying the Indian summer of his career, in the stop-gap position of principal conductor, and Muti is adding Chicago air miles to Salzburg, New York, Vienna and the other high-profile musical cities on his itinerary. He opened the season in Chicago with concerts in September, followed by this two-week tour of western Europe, starting in Turin and ending in London.

At 66, Muti plays the part of the grand maestro to perfection – the dictatorial stare, the peremptory sweeps of the baton, the slicked-back hair, everything sends out the message that here is a man with an iron grip on every crotchet and quaver. Pairing him with the Chicago players is to put the most demanding general in charge of the ultimate musical machine, a weapon that can deliver knock-’em-dead virtuosity.

That was certainly how they came across at their two London concerts on Friday and Saturday. The one serious miscalculation was to start the opening programme with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.6, the “Pathétique”. The virtuoso elements of this symphony are only the cover for a highly strung soul in despair and everything that matters about the music is to be found by looking inwards. Muti and the Chicago orchestra had no time or inclination for that. They simply played the symphony for show: big, brassy, colourful and loud – very loud at times, like a trombone concerto. The flower of Tchaikovsky’s inspiration was left crushed under the wheels of the orchestral juggernaut.

The rest of the concert suited them somewhat better. Hindemith’s Nobilissima visione suite was given a charmless performance, but the many exquisite wind solos shone out with a high degree of neo-classical precision. Scriabin’s Le poème de l’extase is music from the other end of the spectrum, purely sensual extravagance, and was fabulously played. There was a gulf between Chicago’s sumptuousness of sound and the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s arid performance earlier in the year.

When so many visiting orchestras come with the inevitable Bruckner and Mahler symphonies, Muti is to be congratulated for bringing programmes off the beaten track. Saturday’s concert opened with a high-octane performance of Prokofiev’s Symphony No.3 that revelled in excess and a showpiece group of three Spanish-inspired pieces: Falla’s smouldering second suite from the Three-cornered Hat, Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole, played with a heady blend of orchestral textures, and his foot-stamping Bolero. As an encore, Muti took the orchestra back to his homeland with a blistering performance of the overture to Verdi’s La forza del destino, with which the maestro and his troops finally ran up the flag on victory.

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