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Riccardo Muti, a much admired guest on the podium of the New York Philharmonic, is hardly regarded as a vulgarian. He usually does his best to avoid the traps of mush and slush. When the traps become unavoidable, he tends to tread with tasteful caution. Where other conductors wallow in easy sentiment, he tries to tone down the blood, sweat and tears. And so it was on Thursday when he chose a Russian programme for his seasonal debut Lincoln Center.

First he joined Vadim Repin for the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. Both maestro and soloist seemed intent on keeping the expressive indulgences crisp and gentle, assuming no doubt that the composer’s lovely lily required no gilding. Repin sailed through the showy complexities and sentimental plaints with almost objective nonchalance yet managed to project pathos in the process. Muti, self-effacing nearly to a fault, provided a luxuriant frame for his fine protagonist, sustaining brisk tempos and transparent textures. This was dapper Tchaikovsky. If the concept suggests an oxymoron, it turned out to be a refreshing, even illuminating oxymoron on this happy occasion.

Muti returned after the interval for a more daunting extravaganza: Alexander Scriabin’s Symphony No. 3, aka Bozhestvennaya poema or Le poème divin. It entails 50 rambling minutes of mystical mumbo-jumbo, brilliantly orchestrated kitsch. The dynamic scale is vast, the climactic structure redundant, the opportunity for colour-splashing generous. Muti, who has long regarded this fascinating, semi-obscure challenge as a personal specialty, managed to keep the line taut at the outset. In the process, he savoured decorative detail, mustered tension, mastered restraint, almost invoked the virtue of subtlety. He also inspired the New Yorkers to play for him with uncommon power and precision. Eventually, however, the rapturous, repetitive sprawl got the better of him. Scriabin made Muti turn splashy and sentimental.

In its awful way it was wonderful.

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