Muti and Chicago Symphony Orchestra Take on Two Russian Heavyweights

United StatesUnited States Scriabin, Prokofiev: Alisa Kolosova (mezzo-soprano), Sergey Skorokhodov (tenor), Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Riccardo Muti (conductor), Duain Wolfe (chorus director), Carnegie Hall, New York, 1.2.2015 (SSM)

Scriabin: Symphony No. 1 in E major, Op.26
Prokofiev: Alexander Nevsky, Op.78


In 2008 Gramophone ranked the Chicago Symphony as the sixth greatest orchestra in the world and the best in the US. Although Muti didn’t become the orchestra’s leader until 2010, I doubt that their position would have dropped, to judge by the excellence of the performance here. Muti is a conductor who flourishes with music on the grand scale. He directed La Scala for almost 20 years, and he brought an opera-style conducting to this program. It was an accomplishment just to fit the orchestra and chorus on the stage of Carnegie Hall.

Both of these works fall into the category of cantata. We often think of cantatas, such as most of those written by Bach, as sacred works; while there are references to the Divine in Scriabin’s choral text in the last movement, the religion he praises is an aesthetic god named “Art.” In the Prokofiev, Alexander Nevsky’s god is his Russian homeland.

Muti has been an advocate of Scriabin since he recorded the Symphony No. 1 in 1986; his recordings of the three symphonies are considered the best available. No. 1 was not a success when it premiered in 1900, although it did have a run of performances later in Scriabin’s life. The overall structure of the piece and the music itself don’t quite cohere,  and it makes one question why he wrote it. Perhaps it was some form of grandiosity: after all, not many composers would or could write a composition that ends like Beethoven’s 9th with its famous choral movement. This attempt to imitate Beethoven is a particularly pretentious gesture considering it is Scriabin’s first symphony; Brahms wouldn’t write his first until he was 43, fearing he might be compared to Beethoven and found wanting. In addition, one can also hear derivations from Wagner in Scriabin’s Liebestod-like suspensions, and from Liszt’s repeating phrases in Les Préludes.

Muti and the orchestra were clearly committed to this work and produced a powerhouse performance as if it really were Beethoven’s 9th . The chorus came through strongly, even though much of the text (Scriabin’s own) is doggerel. The brass, in particular, was bright and crisp, and it added to the orchestral coloring. The finale with its build-up to the stirring coda is hard not to like. If only the music itself were more inspired, this could have been an exceptional performance.

Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky brought me to this concert, and I was not disappointed. It was written as the score to Sergei Eisenstein’s classic 1938 movie, and there is little subtlety in this film which depicts Russian peasants pushing back Swedish crusaders in the 13th century. The movie closely reflected the contemporary political situation and was meant to inspire its audience to prepare themselves for an onslaught by the Germans. Prokofiev’s music reinforces this propaganda, but it’s too good to just be background to a film. He ensured that his score would be remembered by creating a separate suite and publishing it as Op. 78.

I was also attracted to this performance by the fact that I grew up on the great recording of Alexander Nevsky made in 1959 by the Chicago Symphony under Fritz Reiner with mezzo Rosalind Elias. Muti too gave a ravishing performance, from the opening massive rumblings through its potent choruses and joyous songs of victory. While Alisa Kolosova cannot match Elias in the ethereal aria “The field of the dead,” she was able to convey mournful feelings as a Russian woman who nurses the wounded after the battle.

Stan Metzger

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