Sounds Of The Philadelphia Riccardo Muti Didn't Think An Orchestra Should Have A Characteristic Sound. So It Is A Little Ironic That Emi's Retrospective Of The Conductor's Years Here Should Be Called "The Philadelphia Sound."

Posted: January 04, 1995

Just a year before becoming music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Riccardo Muti rattled its listeners by asking: "What is the 'Philadelphia Sound?' It's a publicity thing, isn't it?"

The question drew blood. It was as if he had proposed that William Penn be lifted off City Hall and put in storage. That question started a lively debate that continues still. Baffled by the uproar, Muti went on to say that an orchestra should have a sound for Mozart, for Brahms, for Scriabin and for other composers rather than forcing all music into one sound mold.

Listeners who may have been weaned on Leopold Stokowski's version of the ''Philadelphia sound" and sustained through adulthood on Eugene Ormandy's version of it were appalled. How dare a man in his 30s throw over a musical tradition so ingrained in the lives of his listeners?

Muti was serious. In his 12 years as music director, the sound of the orchestra changed dramatically. His supporters called it a revolution long overdue, a chance finally to hear all those notes going on within the orchestra. His detractors saw the destruction of an institution. Why, you can't identify the orchestra on records anymore, his critics complained.

How ironic it is then that almost three years after Muti left the orchestra, its principal recording company during the Muti era, EMI, should issue a retrospective nine-disc box titled The Philadelphia Sound (CDZI 79887).

What EMI has issued, however, is not so much the Philadelphia sound as a survey of several sounds achieved during Muti's tenure. It is an interesting comment on the kind of music he programmed, and a view of what EMI thought most truly represented the conductor's strengths.

What was left out is at least as interesting as what was included, for the set has no Mozart, Schumann, Schubert, nothing with voice and no contemporary music.

The emphasis in the set is romantic and Franco-Russian music. Those who thought of Muti as being only Italian and operatic forget how much Russian and French music he conducted here. His seasons usually gave the Mahler, Brahms and Bruckner works to guest conductors, while he played Mozart, Schumann, Stravinsky, early Tchaikovsky, Ravel, Scriabin and Berlioz.

This boxed set includes Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6, Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and two Rachmaninoff works, the Piano Concerto No. 2 and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, both with the only soloist in the set, Andrei Gavrilov. None of these represent the center of Muti's enthusiasms.

The Tchaikovsky Sixth was one of Ormandy's fortes, played regularly on tour and annually at the academy. His version was full of sobs and gloom. Muti's is glassily clear, the dark emotions under control and the energy pressed to highest levels. The end of the third movement is an orchestral explosion achieved following wave after wave of growing power. Yet this has a detached air about it. Muti was clearly at work in music he could analyze, admire, but probably not live.

When Muti first appeared in Philadelphia, critics asked if he did Respighi.

Muti wrinkled his nose. But as years went by, he succumbed to Respighi's orchestral allure, and in 1987, he even toured with Pines of Rome. He recorded the piece as well as Fountains of Rome and Roman Festivals. All appear here, a testament to the kind of gaiety Muti could find in music that caught his fancy.

He saw each as an operatic work. Pines of Rome is high drama - and high beauty. He develops the tension in the final section so steadily it is hard to imagine an orchestra focusing that tightly on a single goal. Clarinet and trumpet solos are high points in this recording.

Relatively early in his tenure, Muti led Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique. It was miles from the kind of performance that had been usual in Philadelphia, but also removed from the inspired madness of Charles Munch's performances in Boston, which had set a world standard. A perfectionist, Muti placed the notes before letting inspiration take control. His Berlioz is operatic, full of theatrical gesture - and some sensitive solo playing - and driven demonically.

The work grew under his baton, and he took it on tour. The recording was made on tour during California concerts that included a telecast performance of the piece.

Stravinsky was a Muti favorite - odd for a conductor who loved to fill a phrase with warmth and who heard the human voice singing everything he led. One of his earliest recordings was Le Sacre du Printemps. The performance of the piece here is warmer than some recordings, yet the exacting rhythms and

meters are controlling elements. This recording is one of most arresting in the group. After the first bassoon solos, the piece drives forward irresistibly. Who could leave the room while this performance surges ahead?

Liszt was a Muti enthusiasm that did not rub off on his listeners. The recording of Les Preludes captures Muti's interest in getting inside the minds of mystics. Liszt freed Muti to let the strings muse over phrases and for the whole orchestra to express spiritual release. Little in this set is more heartfelt than the performance of this Liszt work.

Despite his intellectual questioning, Muti was also able to give brilliant readings of music that has more surface than interior. The set includes first and second suites drawn from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. Muti's performance is operatic, but also highly graphic. He keeps the drama of the ballet squarely in sight, drawing characters clearly, driving the music to heights and instrumental glitter.

Ravel's Bolero is here, too. Muti loved the piece, and worked hard to perfect its instrumental balances. In performance, he could drive an audience to shouting acclaim, and this recording has much of that momentum.

At the end of his tenure, Muti fought EMI to record three Scriabin symphonies. The music is hardly commercial, and EMI has not declared extra dividends as a result of recording them. Muti, who toured with the music, argued vigorously for its worth. Le Poeme de l'extase is included in the box, and it is in some ways Muti's best work.

The intricacy of the music's weaving of color is expressed handsomely, and the logic of the work is the strength of the performance. There is never bombast or a meaningless emphasis, and the sound of the orchestra is so various that the reading could be Muti's farewell statement on the subject.

"The Philadelphia Sound"? It is everywhere on these discs, of course, for the ensemble plays with a sense of tradition and fervor that surpasses any one conductor or player. But the sound here is also nothing like the traditional Philadelphia Sound that characterized the recordings of Eugene Ormandy or Leopold Stokowski. Muti's orchestra expressed his ideals - lean, transparent sound made with precision but allowing freedom for the theatrical gesture.

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