Riccardo Muti at 80: a revelatory retrospective

Dive into Warner Classics’ 91-cd Riccardo Muti: The Complete Warner Symphonic Recordings, involving various orchestras (principally the Philharmonia and Philadelphia) and you’re unlikely to quit the experience without reeling from the odd stimulating punch. The Philharmonia Tchaikovsky symphony cycle for example, Manfred with its roaring big drums and mushrooming tam-tam, the Fourth’s first movement with its tearfully descending woodwind lines. Muti has clearly pondered every note, as he has for Abram Stasevich’s oratorio after Prokofiev’s Ivan the Terrible film score (with Philharmonia forces) where electricity crackles right from the opening, and the storming of Kazan rivals anything in Alexander Nevsky for visceral excitement. And has anyone yet rivalled Muti (and the Philadelphia) in the Romeo & Juliet Suites, ‘Montagues and Capulets’ as fearsomely macho as Westside Story’s Jets and Sharks? Berlioz’s ‘dramatic Symphony’ on the same subject (also Philadelphia) opens to fugal fisticuffs among the strings before foreshadowing both Wagner and Tchaikovsky.  

A Schubert symphony cycle with the VPO runs the gamut of moods and textures, from a bright, balletic Fifth (breezy first movement) to a massive ‘Great’ C major, made even more marmoreal by the inclusion of essential repeats, where Muti slams on the brakes as he approaches the first movement’s majestic denouement (echoes of Furtwängler) and pumps at the hammering chords that close the work (echoes of Toscanini). Verdi and Rossini overtures sizzle with life, the Rossini programme especially. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring emerges from Philadelphia as an unsparing tirade whereas Petrushka projects brutality and humanity in equal measure. The five Scriabin symphonies are breath taking in the way Muti sweeps a path through their densely emotional terrains (try the second movement of No. 1, such clarity and power of attack). As to Respighi, no stereo version of the ‘Roman Trilogy’ that I know of begins to compare with Muti’s from Philadelphia. Indeed, I’m not sure that I don’t prefer it even to vintage Toscanini. You listen to the ‘Pines of the Appian Way’ and wonder if it can possibly get any louder. It does, believe me.

Muti’s Beethoven (all the symphonies, Philadelphia) is unsullied by distortion, but neither does it bow to the fashionable ‘period’ lobby. It’s big, direct, handsomely despatched and beautifully played. There are concertos with Sviatoslav Richter, Andrei Gavrilov, Alexis Weissenberg, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Gidon Kremer, Kyung-Wha Chung, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Maurice André and more and then the big choral works, Verdi’s Requiem vocally spearheaded by Pavarotti, Mozart’s Requiem and numerous sizeable Cherubini pieces of which Muti is an undisputed master. This progenitor of Beethoven fits Muti like a glove, imposing music that on the one hand waves farewell to mighty Haydn while on the other welcomes Beethoven’s upcoming revolution. Vienna ‘New Year’s Day’ concerts prove how Muti can relax with style, prompting the VPO to lilt disarmingly.

There is much more besides of course, all of it subscribing to what appears to be Muti’s invariable musical credo, that honesty is the best policy and that if a work is going to make its full impact, the performance has to be well drilled, considered and poetically potent (witness a rather lovely Mozart Jupiter with the Berlin Philharmonic, again launched with all essential repeats in place). It’s also useful that in general the sound is so good and that essential information is to hand, which in this case arrives in the form of a bonus cd featuring Jon Tolanksy’s first-rate documentary chronicling Muti’s years with the Philharmonia, incorporating copious interviews, one or two of them extremely moving.

This is the third of Warners’ big orchestral boxes, the first devoted to the recordings of Sir John Barbirolli (another unmissable collection), the second gathering together André Previn’s Warner Classics trawl (maybe not quite so distinctive) and now this Muti set which viewed as a whole packs the biggest wallop of all. I’m still loving most of what I hear and can’t recommend it strongly enough.

Riccardo Muti: The Complete Warner Symphonic Recordings

Warner Classics (91 cds) 0190295008345

c£150.00

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