Scriabin lives again at Carnegie Hall! With Mendelssohn, Debussy, Brahms, and Schumann. Riccardo Muti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with Yefim Bronfman

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Alexander Scriabin, Tatiana Schloezer and Leonid Sabaneev on the banks of the Oka

Alexander Scriabin, Tatiana Schloezer and Leonid Sabaneev on the banks of the Oka.

Carnegie Hall
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Riccardo Muti, Music Director and Conductor

Friday, January 30, 2015, 8 pm

Mendelssohn – Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Overture
Debussy – La Mer
Scriabin – Symphony No. 3, “The Divine Poem”

Saturday, January 31, 2015, 8 pm

Brahms – Piano Concerto No. 2
Yefim Bronfman, Piano
Schumann – Symphony No. 3, “Rhenish”

Sunday, February 1, 2015, 2 pm

Alisa Kolosova, Mezzo-Soprano
Sergey Skorokhodov, Tenor
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Duain Wolfe, Director

Scriabin – Symphony No. 1
Prokofiev – Alexander Nevsky

One can’t help feeling mildly shocked when one realizes that the Chicago Symphony is now alone among the great American orchestras in employing one of the great senior conductors as Music Director. Michael Tilson Thomas in San Francisco is close to him in age, but nowhere near him in authority. Franz Welser-Möst has something like authority, but not the age, and one might say that his conviction in following his own lights has not quite developed into the kind of authority conductors like Muti and Chailly command. American orchestra boards seem convinced that this is the season for young blood, that dynamic young men like Yannick Nézet-Séguin Andris Nelsons, Gustavo Dudamel, and the notably less dynamic Alan Gilbert (now, as announced, soon departing the New York Philharmonic) are what is necessary to sell tickets—above all to younger newcomers to the concert hall. Meanwhile august figures like Bernard Haitink, Kurt Masur, Herbert Blomstedt, and Christoph von Dohnányi have been flying from city to city like migratory birds, only settling like crows on a branch in Boston and Tanglewood to guide the orchestra through the years between James Levine’s departure and Andris Nelsons’s recent arrival.

My first acquaintance with Riccardo Muti’s work happened in his early days at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. It was not my first visit to the Maggio Musicale, and I expected to hear the usual sloppy ensemble and weak tuttis. The discipline, energy, and weight of the orchestra under Muti’s direction was astonishing. From that time on, Muti has indefatigably pursued the specific goals he set at the beginning of his career with singular authority—above all the highest musical standards and the promotion of under-recognized composers like Cherubini, Spontini, and Scriabin and forgotten masterpieces by famous composers like Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti. This once included Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, and Muti was a pioneer in the rediscovery of the great opera. The series of concerts we heard at Carnegie this past weekend showed him at his best in both pursuits—not that the Chicago Symphony has ever needed rebuilding, as Boston and New York have.

Muti has been a champion Alexander Scriabin’s music for many years, just as he has of Prokofiev, although Prokofiev hardly needs a champion, especially in the mainstream works Muti conducts—with the exception of the powerful Third Symphony in C Minor, which is rarely performed. As for Scriabin, Muti’s recordings with the Philadelphia Orchestra have been an eloquent testimony to their oustanding qualities—even greatness—for around twenty-five years. (These are out of print as CDs, but available on the Naxos Music Library.) In the New York concerts Scriabin’s Third and First Symphonies, one as the last of a marine program which included Mendelssohn’s somewhat unfamiliar Overture, “Calm Seas and Prosperous Voyage” and Debussy’s very familiar La Mer, and the other as the first half of a program which included Prokofiev’s score for Sergei Eisenstein’s film, Alexander Nevsky, bookended an evening of central German Romantics, Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto and Schumann’s Third Symphony, the “Rhenish.” Let’s hope that these concerts are a sign that we can look forward to Muti’s latest thinking on Scriabin in a new set on the CSO’s superb house label.

Visiting orchestras and their conductors have different ways of exploiting Carnegie Hall’s magnificent acoustics. Rattle and Berlin and the Russian orchestras luxuriate in its resonance, while others, like Philadelphia and Cleveland pursue clarity and balance. (Only Boston, in some recent concerts, seems to show up without careful preparation in the hall. Haitink, for example, produced a much finer balance with the LSO in Avery Fisher than he did with the BSO at Carnegie.) The atmospheric opening bars of Mendelssohn’s overture filled the hall with an immersive cloud of sound, but within seconds the melodic lines in strings and woodwinds made themselves heard clearly, as outstanding details within the blend. The presence of Chicago’s full complement of strings on stage had already tipped us off as to what kind of performance this was going to be, with the full, massive Chicago sound. Mendelssohn’s chirpy tunes called out, well blanketed by the strings. They emerged from their recessive lair clearly enough, but without the spirit the composer intended. Chailly, conducted his Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra back in November, showed us the emotivity behind Mendelssohn’s tunes, both in the “Hebrides” Overture and the “Reformation” Symphony. There was human joy and contentment to be expressed in “Calm Voyage…,” but it was lost in the grandeur of the overall sound and general gravity of Muti’s treatment. Yes, there are echoes of Beethoven’s Leonora Overture No. 3 here, but this remains basically a light-spirited piece. Fortunately this was the only misfire in the entire series of concerts.

Following Muti’s plan to project both atmosphere and detail in the hall, his approach to La Mer straddled the atmospheric and the specific. Phrases and themes were clearly etched, as were the divisions of sections, and the architecture of the movements and the work as a whole. There was plenty of color and atmosphere as well, but not of the brilliant French variety, but rather of a German darkness and rich marrow. Of its European counterparts who have played at Carnegie recently, their sound reminded me most of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Muti had a complex, many-sided conception of the old warhorse, doing justice to Debussy’s logic and structure, while never losing his connection to the coloristic “French” interpretations of the past. It is worth remembering Lodovic Morlot’s performance of La Mer with the Seattle Symphony last spring, which was so solid and clear that it reminded one of a Haydn symphony! Not a very far-ranging exploration of this great work, but worth a listen, nonetheless. Muti’s went much further and was accordingly more satisfying, if not quite in the realm of the ideal. My favorite among recent performances I’ve heard was Stéphane Denève’s with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. Under his brilliant leadership, which clove more to structure and clarity than ambiance, the young musicians back to the farthest chairs, just played it with all heart and soul.

I’ll discuss the Scriabin symphonies together at the end. Needless to say, his Third brought the opening concert to an exalted conclusion in a performance which I’ll remember as one of the greatest I have heard.

Not that the Brahms and Schumann of Saturday evening were in any way below the highest level, and it was these old friends that gave me the understanding of what the Chicago Symphony’s music-making under Muti is all about. These performances were both solid and clear, but subtle and expressive as well. There were, in spite of a few inner lines in both I’ve never heard so clearly before, no self-consciously striven interpretations—and Schumann’s symphonies, if Rattle’s recent tarted-up efforts with Berlin gave any indication, or for that matter, Robin Ticciati’s more intelligent—indeed brilliant—period instrument recordings with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra—are fair game for revisionism. Muti’s was an honest, traditional service to core classics of the repertoire. The balance of rich strings and clear inner voices worked perfectly here, as it did in Scriabin’s heady textures. Unlike the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony, which are all into displaying the gorgeous playing of their soloists, Chicago, more like San Francisco, keep their solos, especially winds, within the overall texture of the ensemble.

The pianist for the Brahms was the great Yefim Bronfman, one of the few pianists today whose penetrating, thoughtful musicianship has attracted something like the kind of following Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horwitz, and Van Cliburn enjoyed. His playing seems natural, as if he could play the powerful, virtuosic passages he excels at with enough space and control to inject spontaneous inflections here and there, where it matters. Muti supported him solidly with  steady, animated tempi and more detail than I’ve heard in the score in any live performance. Still vivid in my mind is Garrick Ohlssen’s magisterial reading at Tanglewood this past summer. Working with Asher Fisch, he manage to spin out an incredibly slow tempo and long line without the pace once falling apart. Bronfman and Muti were not interested in such extremes. Their tempo was suitably august and meditative, but it was still active, full of a properly symphonic tension. Since the winds were more contained within the overall sound, Bronfman’s dialogue with them was a bit less direct, favoring the piano, but this was no hindrance to the eloquence of the whole. The qualities of weight and clarity came to the front, as you might expect in the scherzo. The renowned Chicago brass, especially the horns, were at their best here. The solos came into their own in the great Andante, with a touching, light-toned, exquisitely phrased  solo by principal cellist, John Sharp. Sometimes the opening piano phrases of the finale can seem to float away in the brilliant high register of the instrument, but Bronfman’s were richly colored and substantial enough to set another substantial movement on its way. At the end, with the public’s deserved adulation of Bronfman, Sharp, Muti, and the orchestra, I felt transported back into the days of Van Cliburn and Reiner.

Today, the more successful readings of Schumann’s symphonies have tended towards adherence to the letter of the original score, smaller ensembles, and even period instruments, the recordings of Ticciati and the SCO mentioned above being a case in point, as well as Gardiner’s earlier effort of the kind with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. Muti would have nothing of the sort, and the magnificent results showed that one can bring a Schumann symphony off in the old way, without glossing over the composer’s oddities in the details. Muti was able to let us hear the inner voices and wind details within the grand edifice of sound. There was no room for the kind of chamber music agility of the period instrument performances, but the virtuosity of the soloist players injected a full measure of another kind of immediacy. The success of this performance supports the view that Schumann was attempting fully symphonic music in these works, and not anything more like chamber music or an orchestrated version of his piano music. This is an awfully good time for Schumann-lovers to be alive. The only flaw I could point out was really only a surprise. Given the grandeur of the sonorities, I expected a broader tempo in the fourth movement. Muti kept moving forward, as if the priestly processionists were in a hurry to move on to a celebratory dinner. Soon enough I fell into it and forgot my expectations—which a listener should abandon, if she or he is to listen well. There could not have been a more satisfying or grander performance of Schumann’s “Rhenish.”

Still, the most powerful experience in the series was Scriabin’s Third Symphony, “The Divine Poem.” Muti’s insistence on clarity of texture and rhythm, no matter how rich the orchestra’s sound or how expressive the lines they spin, were just what this enormously complex work needs to convince an audience that this is indeed a great symphony by a great composer. And he has been championing Scriabin for many years now. The audience responded with wild, lengthy applause. Scriabin would have been overjoyed to be there.

In spite of Muti’s efforts over the years, which are as effective as can possibly be, with deeply considered and prepared performances by major orchestras, and those of some others, including the Soviet state, which, in 1972, after over forty years of condemnation, rehabilitated Scriabin, his music hasn’t quite caught on, as Mahler’s and Shostakovich’s have. At the time of his premature death in 1915 from septicemia at the age of forty-three, he was famous in Russia and abroad. His compositions were followed closely in western European periodicals in his own time. His funeral in Moscow was a major event. During the 1920s the young Soviet establishment, above all Anatoly Lunacharsky, espoused his music for its inherent excellence and its humanistic qualities, which was considered an ideal expression of the principles of the new state. By 1930, Lunacharsky and Scriabin’s egoistic mysticism had fallen into disfavor. In the west, Stokowski, Koussevitzky, Monteux, Mitropoulos, Rosenthal, and Goossens championed his music, but primarily in his “Poem of Ecstasy,” perhaps reinforcing the idea that twenty minutes of Scriabin’s demanding music was all audiences could take. Muti’s interpretations show that Scriabin’s music is harder to perform than it is to listen to, and the Carnegie Hall audience was uncharacteristically silent, rapt through the hour it takes for the Third Symphony to unfold.

In spite of its expansive gestures and considerable length, the Third, when performed properly, as it was, impresses one as an economical and tightly constructed work. During the concert it struck me that my experience was like listening to the Franck D Minor Symphony, if the score had come from a much higher source of inspiration. This is not the place, nor am I prepared to explain Scriabin’s methods of organization. Neither was the composer, apparently, because, although he always affirmed that he composed his works “according to a definite principle” and that he could explain it. However, when Taneyev and another composer visited him to listen to this explanation, Scriabin demurred, saying that he had a headache. It is well known that his “principle” went far beyond traditional theory into the spiritual realms cultivated by Madame Blavatzky and Rudolf Steiner and involved a system relating tonality to a color spectrum—the synaesthesia we know from Des Esseintes’s experience in Huysmans’ novel, A rebours—celebrated in a poem by Scriabin’s frère et semblable, Stéphane Mallarmé.

Scriabin’s compositional technique was entirely his own, and the best interpreter is the music itself. As Alan Walker said of Liszt’s Faust symphony one should find a good recording, preferably Beecham’s great one, and listen to it over and over again, as many as twenty times, until it sinks in. Muti can easily function as Scriabin’s Beecham. Fortunately this unforgettable performance was broadcast on WQXR’s Carnegie Hall Live and is available on its site for the forseeable future, and you can listen to it as many times as you wish. It would be hard to find another that matched its awareness of Scriabin’s organic sense of form and structure (which emerges in the first movement in a conventional sonata form with a huge development and coda), rich color, powerfully shaped melodic lines, and a deep insight into Scriabin’s harmonic system, probably developed more over the course of many performances rather than formal analysis, which, as I have said, is not fully adequate to comprehend Scriabin’s process.

Scriabin’s First Symphony in E Major, which began the final concert, is not quite as advanced as the Third, but it is no less a work of mastery and maturity. Consisting of six shorter movements, it amounts to about the same length and scale as the Third. Its textures are a bit simpler and more transparent, and its inclination more lyrical.  Scriabin wrote it in 1899 and 1900, only a few years before the Third. He wrote all three works he called symphonies within a period of five years, after a period of developing his compositional skills in piano music.

If hearing this very beautiful symphony was slightly less overwhelming than the Third, it was not because of Scriabin’s youth (27-28) or inexperience. He began his symphonic phase at that age and ended it at 33, with the Third Symphony. The pianist composer, Jonathan Powell, writing in the Grove, observed that the title give uniquely to the Third, “Divine Poem,” looks forward to his later, one-movement orchestral works, the “Poem of Ecstasy” and “Prometheus, the Poem of Fire.” These have also been called symphonies. I would not call this a fault in Scriabin’s structure, but I had a feeling of completeness as the fifth movement Allegro, a more conventional tempo for a finale, concluded. The sixth movement, with mezzo-soprano and tenor soloists and chorus came as an exalting, and by no means redundant extension. It made the work seem complete in a deeper sense, and the quality of the writing, as strong and muscular as the earlier five movements, sustained the effort.

Scriabin’s own text, especially in translation, may strike one as Schwärmerei, or even pretentious twaddle, but it is, in terms of Scriabin’s spiritual worldview, a sincere declaration of his belief in the real power of art, especially the musical. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is the obvious model for a symphonic finale with voices and chorus, but his Choral Fantasy in C Minor, Op. 80, is a more striking parallel, given the close similarity of the texts. The performance was graced by two superb Russian singers, Alisa Kolosova, mezzo-soprano, and Sergei Skorokhodov, tenor. The quality of the tone, phrasing, and diction of the Chicago Symphony Chorus under Duain Wolfe’s direction was breathtaking. In a musical world blessed by great choruses, both amateur and professional, they proved themselves one of the best.

The final concert closed with one of Muti’s staples, Prokofiev’s score for Sergei Eisenstein’s masterpiece, Alexander Nevsky, surely one of a small group of the film scores that will rise to heaven—made all the more potent by the director’s close collaboration, and the musical affinities of Eisenstein’s system of montage. This music is familiar enough, but the quality of the orchestral musicianship, choral work, and the beautiful Alisa  Kolosova’s singing made it an unforgettable performance. Her voice, while most definitely mezzo-soprano in quality, has some of the richness of a true alto, and a Russian alto at that, without the plumminess, and she uses it with the most affecting expression and taste. After its more essential musical qualities, above all Muti’s conviction that it is a great work, the vividness of the percussion brought out the scores affinities to Prokofiev’s more experimental, little-known, but equally impressive Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution, which he wrote just a year of two before it.

This visit by the Chicago Symphony was without a doubt one of the high water marks of the season, equalled only by the Leipzig Gewandhaus under Chailly and the MET Orchestra under Levine—made especially important by the opportunity to hear the music of a great under-appreciated composer, Alexander Scriabin, in performances which would have sent him into the ecstasy he so constantly sought. I admired the whole endeavor for its musical integrity and passion. My companion for two of the concerts found them “magical.” Perhaps that is all one needs to say.

Riccardo Muti conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2012.

Riccardo Muti conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2012.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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