Muti’s Tchaikovsky is Refreshing in its Integrity

GermanyGermany Schubert and Tchaikovsky: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Riccardo Muti (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 24.5.2017. (MB)

Schubert – Symphony no.4 in C minor, D 417

Tchaikovsky – Symphony no.4 in F minor, op.36

Riccardo Muti has long been a fine Schubert conductor; his EMI set of the complete symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic has much to commend it, and certainly not just for the orchestra. Whilst there was much to enjoy in this performance with the Berlin Philharmonic, I could not help but feel, especially in the first movement of the Fourth Symphony, that something was lacking, especially when compared with Daniel Barenboim’s recent performance of the first three symphonies with the Staatskapelle Berlin. The opening certainly sounded splendid, its C minor strongly suggesting a response to Haydn’s ‘Representation of Chaos’, even if the subsequent path taken by the introduction proved more Mozartian. The rest of the movement, especially the exposition proper, proved elegant, if a little earthbound. There was something surprisingly static, even plodding, to Muti’s approach, which suggested repetition over development.

The slow movement, slower than is now fashionable and all the lovelier for it, fared much better. It offered considerable cumulative sweep and a little more flexibility. The Berlin woodwind’s playing proved enchanting indeed. A characterful jolt was offered by the syncopations of the third movement, its trio treading fruitfully a fine balance between the courtly and the unassuming. The finale came off best of all, I think, with tension aplenty, but leggierezza too. (I say ‘but’, yet do not really mean it, for the lightness was very much part of that tension.) Here was all the formal dynamism, too, that I had missed in the first movement. This is not Beethoven, and there is little point in pretending it is; Schubert does go around the houses a bit here. Nevertheless, the seriousness with which Muti and the orchestra pursued what in some ways is a more difficult task spoke of integrity, of something considerably more than the merely amiable.

That said, both – perhaps unexpectedly, in Muti’s case, at least – sounded considerably more at home after the interval, in Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. There was nothing predictable about Muti’s reading, but nor was there any straining to be different for the sake of it. The music, it seemed, had been thought and re-thought, allowing it in performance to give the impression of speaking ‘for itself’. The first movement’s opening fanfares were appropriately Fatal; thereafter, the music flowed much more freely than it had in the equivalent movement of the Schubert. What particularly struck me was the intimacy of so much, possessed of a true chamber quality such as I have rarely, if ever, heard before. It was rather as if we were passing between public and private, in a performance of Eugene Onegin or The Queen of Spades. For the music danced too, as often it must. Just as important, there was no manufacturing of ‘emotion’, applied to the music; sentiment rather arose from the score ‘itself’.

In context, the second movement evinced a certain kinship with its Schubertian counterpart – as well, of course, as obvious difference. Woodwind solos, once again quite delectable, as well as onward tread spoke of the former tendency, whilst balletic and ‘Slavic’ qualities were very much Tchaikovsky’s own. Muti left us in no doubt of the music’s symphonic stature; I was actually reminded of Klemperer at times, not a comparison I had especially expected to draw. The scherzo offered many similar qualities, albeit in music of very different character. If the Berlin strings were mightily impressive in the pizzicato, that impressive quality was as musical as it was technical. The woodwind section both grew out of and contrasted with that opening material, and the combination of the two at the close proved quietly brilliant. There was certainly nothing quiet concerning the brilliance of the finale. If it were at times a little dogged, is that not partly the point? And, in any case, there was much more to it than that; it could be seductive too, in its grace and charm, all the more so again for having nothing in the way of emotional crudity applied to it. Muti’s is not the only way to perform this work – no one’s is – but it proved refreshing in its integrity.

Mark Berry

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