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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

Rossini, Verdi, Puccini, and Brahms: Barbara Frittoli, Philadelphia Orchestra, Riccardo Muti, Verizon Hall, 13 February 2005 (BJ)

Forgetting is too easy. Amid all the divergent opinions that circulate locally about the respective merits of Philadelphia Orchestra music director Christoph Eschenbach and of his immediate predecessor Wolfgang Sawallisch (in which matter I definitely belong to the Eschenbach camp), Riccardo Muti, conducting for the first time in the hall whose construction three years ago his advocacy did so much to make possible, reminded us of the stupendous level of performance he achieved almost every week during his own 12-year tenure as the head of the orchestra. Returning thanks to an invitation from the players themselves, who donated their services for this benefit concert, Muti and his soloist Barbara Frittoli also appeared without fee, offering a program that progressed from Rossini’s Guillaume Tell overture, by way of arias from Il trovatore, La traviata, and Tosca, to the Brahms Second Symphony after intermission.

If the charge of electricity in the hall seemed high at the start, it increased palpably as the orchestra executed its thoroughbred gallop through the overture’s Allegro, spurred on by fiery thrusts from Muti, who also occasionally suspended his beat altogether to give the players their head. Then Ms. Frittoli demonstrated her right to be numbered among the finest Italian sopranos now before the public. In Leonora’s “Tacea la notte placida,” Violetta’s “Addio del passato,” and Floria Tosca’s “Vissi d’arte,” she not merely sang with sumptuous tone, crystalline clarity, and unwavering firmness of line, but seemed in each case to embody the very character she was representing. It was spellbinding – for the first time in years, I had the sensation that I was listening not to a singer but, in the very flesh, to Leonora in her passion, Violetta in her despair, and Tosca in her vehement protest against the injustice of life. The soprano’s rapport with the conductor, moreover, was so total that one could see at once why Muti so often chooses her as his soloist.

The Brahms Second was a natural choice for the occasion. Muti recorded all four Brahms symphonies with the orchestra back in the 1980s. The Second is a work he seems especially close to: he gave a remarkable performance of it with the New York Philharmonic just last year, and this one was perhaps even more cogent and thrilling. Observing the first-movement exposition repeat as is his custom, he underlined its necessity and relevance by subtle shifts of musical emphasis the second time around. The lines flowed, the dynamic arc was masterfully projected, and the rhythm, even in passages where its details are too often glossed over, was at once meticulous and exultantly propulsive. In all four movements orchestral soloists, especially principal oboist Richard Woodhams, principal clarinetist Ricardo Morales, and principal flutist Jeffrey Khaner, were encouraged to prodigies of artistry; the brass, strengthened by several excellent appointments since Muti relinquished the orchestra’s helm, and the percussion played with impressive solidity and refinement; and the strings, including several retired members who returned for this special event, were everything their exalted reputation could have led anyone to expect.

Receiving a standing ovation from a packed house, Muti responded with a graceful speech proclaiming his affection for the orchestra and the city, and explaining his choice of music in terms of its values of freedom, peace, and human fulfilment. Then an encore that spoke in similar terms, Verdi’s Forza del destino overture, brought an unforgettable evening to a close that was at once inspired and inspiring.

Bernard Jacobson



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)