Monday, 8 October 2007

CSO/Muti: Prokofiev, Falla, and Ravel, 6 October 2007

Royal Festival Hall

Prokofiev: Symphony no.3 in C minor, Op.44
Falla: The Three-cornered Hat, Suite no.2
Ravel: Rapsodie espagnole
Ravel: Boléro

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Riccardo Muti (conductor)

This was a splendid concert, full of orchestral colour, which acted as a showcase for numerous strengths of both orchestra and conductor. That the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is one of the world's greatest orchestras can hardly have been in doubt even before, but there could be no doubt having heard it at the Royal Festival Hall. It is in many respects a very American sound, with gleaming strings, great precision of attack, and of course its celebrated brass section, but it never sounded anonymously 'international' as some bands of that ilk can. Muti is of course a brilliant conductor, 'old school' and all the better for it. I was put in mind more than once of the orchestral command exercised by two former music directors in Chicago, Fritz Reiner and Sir Georg Solti. Yet there was none of the brashness that could sometimes characterise Solti's work.

Prokofiev's Third Symphony packed quite a punch from the very outset. Those thumping initial chords made a duly screaming impact, not only with their volume, not only with their dissonance, but also with the supremely judged balance, which allowed more colours to emerge than has often been the case in performances of this work. This was achieved without any lessening of the impact of brass and percussion. If the opening overshadowed the rest of the first movement, this is attributable to Prokofiev rather than to the performance, which did everything he could conceivably have asked. It does seem to me that there is something of a mismatch between the musical material, initially conceived for the masterly Fiery Angel, and symphonic form, but probably the best course of action is to consider a surreal succession of often garish images, rather than to worry too much about formal shortcomings. The repose of the slow movement was certainly welcome. Muti's command of the long, almost vocal lines impressed, as did the varied solo contributions. The violin glissandi and other ghostly aspects of the scherzo came across with unusual vividness, and never at the expense of the clearer form of that movement. Much the same could be said of the well-nigh faultless finale, whose marriage of grotesquerie and harmonic side-slipping lyricism was portrayed with both a keen ear for colour and balance and an impressive sense of theatrical effect. This symphony is not often performed, but I can safely say that I have not heard a superior performance.

In the second half, we moved to Spain. The second suite from Falla's ballet, The Three-cornered Hat, received an equally committed reading. Rhythms were acutely pointed, as was their marriage to harmonic progression. The array of colours on offer was kaleidoscopic, with warm and sultry moments caught in vivid relief against the backdrop of the dance. As with every section of the evening's programme, there was never the slightest doubt that the musicians knew precisely where they were going; they acted as perfect hosts during our colourful tour.

The Ravel items were, if anything, more impressive still, partly, I suspect, on account of their being whole works, and partly on account of the still greater scope they offered for colouristic differentiation. In this respect, orchestra and conductor wanted nothing. The emphasis may have been more brazenly 'Spanish' than French performances of the old school might have offered, but there is nothing wrong with that. There was certainly none of that wateriness in the strings that has often characterised readings of that school. Precision was at the very core, as it should be, since Ravel has none of Debussy's ambiguity; not for nothing did Stravinsky dub him a Swiss watchmaker. The ostinato rhythm of the Rapsodie's 'Prélude à la nuit' pulsated with a winning combination of persistence and languor, whilst Ravel weaved his colouristic and harmonic magic above. And the cumulative effect of Boléro can rarely have been better achieved - even if that very success did point to the undoubted monotony of the work. Thank goodness for that final harmonic wrench to E major, without which I might have been driven mad.

As an encore, Muti and the CSO offered a blistering account of the Overture to Verdi's La forza del destino. It exhibited all the virtues outlined above, and moreover boasted a flexibility born of the conductor's immersion in Verdi's music. To return to the beginning, its opening evocation of fate packed just as much a punch as had the barbarism of the Prokofiev symphony, yet the celebrated melody that followed (forever associated in my mind with the films Jean de Florette and Manon des sources) was as tender as one could imagine. Even for a Verdi sceptic such as myself, this provided a worthy culmination to the evening. The repertoire exhibited not a trace of Teutonic profundity, but our musical heritage possesses other aspects demanding attention, attention which paid off handsomely in this case.