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S & H International Concert Review

Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, Orchestre National de France, Théâtre des Champs Elysèes, April 26, 2003 (FC)


Ticket scouts were outside. In the audience, movie stars and their paparazzi mingled with cheering, stomping fans draping adoring banners over the railing. Mick Jagger? David Beckham? No, just Riccardo Muti making one of his seasonal stops in Paris to conduct the Orchestre National de France - with whom he has had an annual date for the last sixteen years. Earlier this season you could witness his passion for early music with performances of the Pergolesi Stabat Mater and the Haydn Seven Last Words of Christ in the version for orchestra. He returned this time with a more mainstream work, Tchaikovsky’s Pathètique Symphony (No. 6), in a concert that was broadcast live on France Musiques. Muti opened the concert partnered with one of the many grand talents who make regular appearances on his La Scala stage, mezzo-soprano Violetta Urmana, who sang Berlioz.

The Paris musical season is chock full with the red-haired firebrand's music in celebration of the bicentennial of his birth. ‘La mort de Clèopâtre’, although one of Berlioz' early lyric works, is one of his most gripping. Urmana, at the top of her form, sang the text with a taut and edgy style that perfectly complemented Muti's electric conducting. It was a performance of high dramatic impact and impressive virtuosity from all concerned.

The symphony, which closed the program, was also given a propulsive reading and showed why Muti is easily one of the top rank of conductors of his time. His use of the strings like percussion instruments, the high precision he demands, and his rooting out of all sentimentality and rubato in the music reminds one of the crackling but seamless performances of Sir George Solti. He did find unusual dance-like charm in the second movement. The famed march-like third movement was delivered with a measured pace but generous with vitality. He seemed to be at pains to show an alternative to the almost universal breakneck tempo usually heard. It was an original and expansive reading of what is often a slap-dash cliché in other hands. No less impressive was the final movement's scale and passion. Everyone in the hall, and a large audience on the radio, knew that that this was an evening out of the ordinary and likely to linger in the memory.

Frank Cadenhead




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