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7.12.07

Ionarts-at-Large: Muti & Rota

Just seven weeks after Riccardo Muti had presented choral rarities of Schubert, Petrassi, and Berlioz in Munich, he was back with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in a concert of the music of Nino Rota and César Franck -- intermittently the BRSO had toured Japan with Mariss Jansons and Richard Strauss – and judging from the reviews with the usual, extraordinary success.

With Arcadi Volodos occupying the Herkulessaal on Thursday, the BRSO played in their second home, the Philharmonie at the Gasteig. (This choice between the smallish 1300 seat Herkulessaal and the too-big, acoustically challenged 2400 seat Gasteig is the reason why Mariss Jansons is so engaged in the BRSO getting a new, dedicated 1800 seat concert hall which is tentatively planned at the former royal stables, right behind the opera.)

Despite the draw that is Riccardo Muti’s name and likely because of the lack of familiarity with the name Nino Rota or the association of him with film music (e.g. The Godfather, , La Strada), the BRSO played to a less than sold out house.

A shame, because those who stayed away missed a spectacularly bold concert of music that only the most hardened music-snobs would not have embraced wholeheartedly. Perhaps it is part of the irony of the concert business that people stay away when the fare is too difficult and when it is not ‘serious’ enough. Even Claudio Abbado can’t fill the Gasteig in Munich when he adds as harmless a piece as Pelleas et Mllisande onto a Mahler program, just because the name “Schoenberg” is astutely avoided. Similarly, if it isn’t “Beethoven” or “Strauss” or “Mozart” that’s on the program but ‘only a film composer’, large swaths of the audience won’t think it classy enough.

Il Gattopardo, Luchino Visconti’s 1966 melancholic film about the decline and fall of Italian aristocracy and noblesse with Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale, and Alain Delon, got Nino Rota’s most romantic and wistful music. The story is a throwback to a bygone, allegedly better, time – full of romantic melancholy and reminiscences. That’s exactly how the music sounds, too. And listening to it, the argument that Nino Rota was only to happy to compose this music under the guise of making it suitable for the film, while really yearning to write exactly that kind of music, anyway, sounds unassailable. Here he did not need to hide behind irony or hints of a modern idiom – he could brazenly wallow in all the schmaltzy, lush, thundering, glory-touting, somber, introverted, and pensive instincts that came to him and that he was not able to put into the abandoned symphony upon the sketches of which the music to Il Gattopardo is based.

There was not a moment in which it did not sound like a matter of luxury to have this music played by the BRSO under Riccardo Muti’s caring leadership. That Muti, not known for frivolities of any kind, thus champions Rota not only has to do with the better-than-suspected music of the Milan-born composer who taught at the South Italian conservatory in Bari, but also with Rota having been Muti’s teacher whose recommendation got the then 17-year old conductor-to-be into the conservatory in Naples.

available at ArkivMusic
C.Franck, Symphony in d-minor, Muti/Philadelphia


available at ArkivMusic
Rota, La Strada, Gattopardo Dances, Cto. for Strings, Muti/La Scala Phil


available at ArkivMusic
Rota, Piano Concertos, Muti/Tomassi/La Scala Phil


available at ArkivMusic
Rota, Music for Film, Muti/La Scala Phil


available at ArkivMusic
Rota, La Strada, Il Gattopardo, Concerto Soirée, Pons/Granada City Orchestra

Muti seems to pay back his dues with enthusiasm and passion: Swelling and moving, the orchestra dug into this score, as well as the following Piano Concerto’s, with fury. The brass boomed, the timpani thumped, and the strings swooned. There’s little I find more tiring than the typical conductor’s platitude of every piece of music, no matter its inherent worth, having to be played like it is the “best piece ever written”. On Thursday with the BRSO, the statement finally came true. It shows the respect that Muti wields from the players – and his ability to share his passion – that both of the Rota works were played as if they were the finest music that Beethoven has to offer.

They are not, mind you, but that’s not to say that we shouldn’t hear the symphonic suite or either concerto much more often in concert! The more archaic and romantic is clearly the Piano Concerto E-major ”Piccolo mondo antico”. A pianistic showpiece that starts out like Rachmaninov, then moves through a slow movement of clouded joy and longing smiles that sounds more like Ravel than anything else, and ends with a flashy bang after much of its third movement reminded of the Prokofiev of ”Romeo & Juliet” and ”The Love for Three Oranges” (as well as more Ravel), it seems to travel though all the more harmless romantic styles of the 20th century. There is obscene deliciousness here, and more swells and climaxes while the irony in it is scarcely noticeable. At least not in the confident rendition of Muti who seems to think that this music needs no irony for its self-defense.

The young French pianist David Fray, whose recent album of Bach and Boulez on Virgin found the warm praise of Anthony Tommasini, played along with Muti, milked the concerto to the hilt, and his perfectly placed last chord coincided with the thundering applause of the audience.

The second half of the concert was reserved for a dominating, all-stops-pulled, Symphony in d-minor by Franck. I don’t blame the audience of the work's premiere for not having quite understood the work. After founding the Société Nationale de Musique with Fauré, Bizet, Saint-Saëns, Massenet, etc. to open a new, decidedly French front against the dominance of Wagnerian music, to champion a music that breathed the spirit of ”ars gallica”, and after being a teacher to d’Indy, Chausson, Pierné, Dukas, and the brilliant, mad Duparc (to whom the symphony is dedicated), it should seem odd to present a symphony that could not be any less French. In fact, it’s a work that seems to combine ideas and themes of Wagner, Bruckner, Brahms, Liszt, and even Beethoven, just not an ounce of French idiom. A few very simple motifs are turned into a grand symphony of three movements that sounds to me like the very rejection of everything he had worked and faught for... but instead like..., well, like Bruckner vacationing on the Côte d'Azur.


No complaints from me. And Muti, too, did not seem to be interested in adding anything dainty or croissant-flavored to the symphony. This was a militaristic and swift performance of complete cohesion and sonority, impressive at every point, though driven too hard in some places. Not only bold and muscular, but blaring and not bothering much with subtleties, either. A particular delight amid all this was the pizzicato-burdened Allegretto with its
famous cor anglais-solo where the soloist gets to snarl like depressed, moaning duck to the harp’s diligent plucking.

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