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There would seem to be two Riccardo Mutis these days, one wild and one mild. Manhattan adores both.

Earlier this month, the urbane Italian maestro returned to the Philharmonic for a pair of shock surprises. First he engaged the brilliantly wayward enfant terrible Lang Lang in a battle over propriety in Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto (Lang Lang lost). Then he exhumed the screaming horrors of Hindemith’s Sancta Susana. Last week, Muti turned the other creative cheek with a programme devoted to the sweet symphonic restraint of Rossini, Schubert and Dvorák.

Hints of a split personality notwithstanding, Muti remains an old-world figure of authority. He always projects discerning conviction and in the process always – well, almost always – makes the unlikely plausible. Without storm or stress, he enforces finesse even with an ensemble not normally noted for discipline. Once the music gets going, he occasionally pays his players the compliment of not conducting at all. They know their way, he seems to say; let them do it.

The concert on Thursday was a model of taste, possibly too much so. One could savour an endless demonstration of skill and polish, prettiness and poise. Still, an ingrate could yearn for a jolt or two of expressive challenge. Blame the repertory choices.

Muti began with Rossini’s Semiramide overture, making it an essay in debonair charm. He turned next to Schubert’s Symphony No. 3, a sunny, rather formal jeu d’esprit written when the composer was a precocious 18. After the interval came the gentle, once-over-easy romanticism of Dvorák’s Fifth Symphony (no, not the New World), which the orchestra had not touched for 13 years. Everything emerged smooth,
polite, lovely. Profundity remained scarce.

The Philharmonic, not incidentally, will need a new music director in two seasons. The management recently announced a controversial plan to engage a principal conductor to share the burden of leadership. Now free of full-time commitments in Europe, Muti would be an obvious candidate for either position, but he claims no interest. Perhaps he protests too much. Hope springs internal.

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