As if to make up for not appearing among the big visiting orchestras at this year's Proms, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was the first orchestra to visit the Royal Festival Hall in this season's Shell Classic International series. Under Riccardo Muti, they performed two varied programmes on Friday and Saturday. Perhaps surprisingly, both concerts turned on its head the usual concept of programming the big symphonies in the second half. This meant that their first concert started with Tchaikovsky's Pathétique followed by shorter pieces by Hindemith and Scriabin, the second with Prokofiev's Third, followed by De Falla and Ravel.
A consequence of this strategy was that the performance of the Pathétique seemed to catch both the orchestra and, if my reaction was in any way representative, the audience unprepared. I spent much of the piece adjusting to the astonishingly rich and full sound produced by the Chicago players and on reflection, the flawless technical precision and tonal refulgence were probably this performance's greatest virtues.
Muti, who's been so closely associated with the Philharmonia and the South Bank Centre for several decades obviously has his fair share of fans; he was cheered even before he'd conducted a note. For me, though, the main attraction was the orchestra itself. Any interpretative insight Muti brought to the Tchaikovsky was overshadowed by the thrill of hearing an orchestra of such astonishing quality. Muti's reading was highly charged and rather Italianate, striving to extract the maximum emotional force from Tchaikovsky's high octane score.
Despite some wonderful solo work – clarinettist Larry Combs and bassoonist David McGill were rightly singled out to take their own bows at the end – there was a slight lack of detail. There was also a lack of dynamic contrast, Muti appearing too content to wallow in the richness of the Chicago players' sound, particularly the warmth of the brass, which overpowered on a couple of occasions. The interpretation sought not to delineate the structure of Tchaikovsky's carefully argued score but take each moment as it came. So we were left with a reading which thrilled on many occasions – big swells of sound in the opening movement were overwhelming, the technical security in the furious March of the third movement breathtaking, the richness of string tone in the final movement hugely impressive – but failed to gain power cumulatively through the work's span.
The second half was one of contrasts. Paul Hindemith, the sometimes rather dry and academic proponent of 'new objectivity', was contrasted with Alexander Scriabin, the eccentric, hyper-romantic Russian mystic. However, Hindemith's Suite from the ballet Nobilissima Visione catches the composer in slightly less stern guise. The ballet was inspired by scenes from the life of Francis of Assisi and was a collaboration with Massine, who said that they tried to 'create and sustain, throughout, a mood of mystic exaltation.'
After the slightly generalised playing in the first half, here Muti drew a detailed and carefully shaded performance from the Chicago players. The introduction was finely controlled and the subsequent rondo distinguished by Mathieu Dufour's beautiful flute solo. Although the brass once again could have been kept on a tighter rein in the closing Passacaglia, the light and quirky march, starting off with just piccolo and side drum, was developed with fearsome power.
Muti has always made the works of Scriabin something of a speciality and in Le Poème de l'extase with which the first concert finished, we witnessed what seemed like a perfect interpretative marriage for this work. The searing intensity of the Chicago Symphony's sound allied to Muti's carefully controlled but unapologetic reading was memorable. Christopher Martin's trumpet, which had seemed a little overbearing in the Tchaikovsky, here was penetrating and thrilling, the vibrato he employs perfect for the ripeness of Scriabin's score. The pure sonic splendour of the performance gave it its own validity and one cannot think of a more persuasive case being made for this idiosyncratic composer. The encore was a beautifully hushed extract from Schubert's incidental music for Rosamunde. Muti made no apologies for the fact that he kept all the string players from the Scriabin on stage for this and he was right not to: the forty or so strings pared down their sound miraculously to provide their whispered accompaniment.
Giving the programmes over the two evenings a certain symmetry, the second concert kicked off with a work which Serge Koussevitsky called 'the best symphony since Tchaikovsky's Sixth'. Based on material from The Fiery Angel, Prokofiev's Third is described by Philip Huscher in his programme note as containing 'some of the noisiest and most searing music Prokofiev ever wrote.' This orchestra had already shown its propensity for the noisy and searing in its first programme and there were no disappointments here. If the first part of the first movement didn't quite reach fever pitch, the big march idea a few minutes before the end, brass blazing magnificently, was thrilling. So too the virtuosity of the strings, sliding around with abandon in the extraordinary, spooky, third movement. If sheer tonal richness of the orchestra in the Andante led to a slightly opaque texture, the quality of the sound in the outer movements more than made up for it: refined and powerful, intense and brutal.
After the interval we were treated to performances of De Falla and Ravel of exemplary quality. Although this isn't repertoire that one normally associates with Muti, he showed himself to be fully at home in it and the orchestra was once again simply outstanding. The second suite from Manuel de Falla's The Three Cornered Hat opened with an urgent reading of the 'Neighbour's Dance', remarkable again for some great work from principle flautist Mathieu Dufour. The opening horn solo of the 'Miller's Dance' was despatched with swagger and aplomb by Dale Clevenger (who had simply been flawless throughout both concerts) and the frantic jota of the 'Final Dance' was controlled expertly by the conductor, toying with the audience as he pulled the tempo back so many times like a coiled spring before letting his players off the leash again. It brought the house down.
We stayed in Spain for the final two pieces, Ravel's Rapsodie Espagnole and Boléro. Ravel's evocations are painted in far more subtle terms than De Falla's. The Spaniard's score could perhaps be the sonic equivalent of some of Picasso's bright canvases; the great Spanish artist did, after all, design costumes and sets for the first performance of the ballet. In the Ravel the baked torpor of the opening 'Prélude à la nuit' is carried through into the languid dances that complete the work. The orchestra acquitted themselves admirably throughout, achieving the ideal balance between clear, lucid textures, individual soloist brilliance and a blended, seamlessly full sound.
One could complain that the Boléro is so irreversibly spoilt for modern ears that it shouldn't be programmed. One could also argue that, as Ravel himself admitted, it is 'an experiment in a very special and limited direction' and as such doesn't really warrant programming in the first place. However, the performance here was a minor revelation. Quite apart from the fact that it allowed us once more to hear the individual brilliance of the orchestra's soloists one by one, it was controlled with such patience that its one long crescendo and eventual climax, with its sudden shift from C to E major, was immensely powerful. It's not Ravel's greatest composition by any stretch but in its own 'very special and limited direction', it is a masterpiece.
The final encore, the Overture to La forza del destino (was this a coincidence given Muti's well-publicised and widely condemned withdrawal from Covent Garden's staging of that work a couple of years ago?) brought these two concerts to a suitably rousing conclusion. On this tour, this great orchestra has obviously built up an enviable rapport with Muti and, through familiarity with the repertoire on show, produced some of the most technically dazzling and secure orchestral playing I've heard in a long time. Perhaps starting from cold with Tchaikovsky's most enigmatic symphonic score was a mistake, but elsewhere, Muti let the players do the talking, producing some immensly impressive and authoritative performances.
By Hugo Shirley