David Royko Psy.D
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September 12, 2010
Riccardo Muti's essential discs
By David Royko
When Riccardo Muti takes over as the CSO’s music director this month, he brings with him a catalogue of more than 200 recordings from his four-decades-plus career, mainly made for the EMI, Philips and Columbia/Sony labels. Unlike Sir Georg Solti and Daniel Barenboim and their complete cycles of Mahler and Bruckner, and Pierre Boulez and Bernard Haitink who also added to their own considerable recorded output with these two composers and the CSO, most of Muti’s non-operatic recordings fall squarely into the earlier standard repertoire: complete symphony cycles of Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Schubert, and Tchaikovsky, along with major works by Prokofiev and Mendelssohn, a smattering of Richard Strauss, Respighi, Dvorak and Stravinsky -- all familiar names to collectors of CSO recordings. In the choral realm, Muti’s ventured into some slightly less exposed territory, such as the Italians, Cherubini and Vivaldi.
While no conductor with a sizable catalogue hits the bull’s-eye every time -- even the microscopic list of Muti’s idol and friend the legendary Carlos Kleiber isn’t flawless -- overall the microphone has been good to Muti, and him to it. And he’s used this good connection to venture into some less-traveled areas, including several albums of film scores and concert music by his mentor and teacher Nino Rota (Sony and EMI, with the Filarmonica della Scala), an expressive traversal of lifelong Philadelphian Vincent Persichetti’s Fifth Symphony “for Strings” (New World Records, with Philadelphia), and most extensively, the masses of Luigi Cherubini (EMI, with various orchestras, choirs and soloists), with Muti virtually ignoring period instrument practices, providing bold and brawny aural feasts.
Even now, as an elder statesman among living conductors now, it’s refreshing that Muti’s backlist is not filled with re-recordings. Star conductors typically have ample duplications in their catalogue by the time they reach Muti’s age (with the late Herbert von Karajan a beacon of recorded excess). Even Solti did two Beethoven symphony cycles in Chicago. That being said, Muti’s inaugural release for the CSO’s own label, CSO Resound, is the Verdi Requiem, a Muti specialty which he recorded for EMI, not just once, but twice, in 1979 and 1987. But it’s exceptional and you can see why he would want to have put it down on a recording with his new orchestra and chorus. (See below.)
So what might the future hold in terms of the CSO’s past specialties? The last music director whose recorded resume did not end up with complete Mahler and/or Bruckner cycles was Jean Martinon in the 1960s, before Bruckner and Mahler had become the Bobbsey Twins of virtuoso orchestras and Chicago became a major force in the worldwide Mahler/Bruckner sweepstakes. Will CSO recordings enter a strange new world of far less Bruckner and Mahler, at least from the music director? Or will Chicago’s history and the orchestra’s extraordinary sound inspire Muti to record his thoughts on these two uber-Romantics? His CSO performances of Bruckner’s Second last season suggested they’d be worth hearing. He has a virtual blank slate (aside from bootlegs, from the 1980s there are a Bruckner 4 and 6 with the Berlin Philharmonic and a Mahler 1 from Philadelphia on EMI, and a non-commercial release of a 1995 Mahler 4th with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra), should he decide to fill it.
Some essential symphonic recordings by Muti:
Verdi: Messa da Requiem. Barbara Frittoli, Olga Borodina, Mario Zeffiri, Ildar Abdrazakov, Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (CSO Resound, recorded in 2009, 2 discs)
All three Muti Requiem recordings are inspired, but his new Chicago Symphony offering walks away with top honors, thanks to rich, spacious sound, flawless and communicative playing, very good-to-excellent soloists and the heavenly CSO chorus. In the extroverted passages, Muti’s conducting has lost none of the youthful vigor and whip-crack excitement that earned comparisons early on to Toscanini. Meanwhile, the mournful, mysterioso sections have, if anything, deepened a bit over the past couple decades since the conductor made his second recording. A great start for Muti’s Chicago era.
Beethoven: The Complete Symphonies, Fidelio Overture, Consecration of the House Overture. Cheryl Studer, Peter Seiffert, Delores Ziegler, James Morris, Westminster Choir and vocal soloists, Philadelphia Orchestra, Riccardo Muti, conductor. (EMI, rec. 1985-1989, 6 discs)
The Philadelphians are spectacular in Muti’s Beethoven set -- though don’t be surprised if he wants to take Beethoven out for another stroll in his new neighborhood -- marked by an “Eroica“ that hits all the right buttons at the right times, and a Seventh that, even in an unbelievably crowded field, stands with the best of the stereo era. Those looking for the latest in original-instrument adherence can safely pass this by. Fellow troglodytes: Enjoy!
Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet Suites 1 & 2; Respighi: "The Pines of Rome," Philadelphia Orchestra (EMI, 1982, 1985)
The Russian Prokofiev brings out Muti’s best, illuminating how the Toscanini comparisons erupted early on, even in this non-Toscanini repertoire. The Philadelphians are simply astonishing, in both “Romeo and Juliet” and perhaps even more so, the Respighi showpiece.
Schubert: The Symphonies, Rosamunde Overture and Ballet Music. Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (Brilliant Classics, 1986-1993, 4 discs)
Receiving mixed reviews when it was new, Muti’s Schubert symphonies have aged well, the early works played with verve but not over-done, while the last symphonies burn with fiery drama, unlike the sound that Vienna often has. It is now available at a give-away price on a super-budget label.
Tchaikovsky: Symphonies 1-6, Manfred Symphony, 1812 Overture, Serenade for Strings, Suite from Swan Lake, Francesca da Rimini, Romeo and Juliet Overture. Philharmonia, New Philharmonia, Philadelphia Orchestras (Brilliant Classics, 1975-1979, 6 discs)
A classic set (and another reissued on the cheap Brilliant Classics label), Muti’s Tchaikovsky is among the rare cycles where each individual symphony is competitive with the best on the market. As impressive as Muti can be with the Italian repertoire, between Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev (and his Scriabin and Stravinsky also are worth serious attention), one wonders if there’s not a healthy dose of Russian blood coursing through those Mediterranean veins.
David Royko is a music writer, record collector and editor of Royko in Love: Mike's Letters to Carol (University of Chicago Press).