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Italian Masterworks
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Nabucco (1842)
Overture [6:57]
‘Gli arredi festivi’ [6:10]
Macbeth (1847/1865)
‘Patria oppressa!’ [7:30]
I vespri siciliani (1855)
Overture [9:16]
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Manon Lescaut (1893)
Intermezzo [6:18]
Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)
Cavalleria rusticana (1890)
Intermezzo [4:32]
Arrigo BOITO (1842-1918)
Mefistofele (1868)
‘Ave, Signor degli angeli e dei santi’ (Falangi Celesti) [11:22]
‘Ave, Signor’ (Mefistofele/Chorus Mysticus/Falangi Celesti) [7:06]
‘Siam nimbi volanti dai limbi’ (Cherubini/Mefistofele) [2:15]
‘Salve Regina!’ (Le Penitenti/Falangi Celesti/Cherubini) [7:07]
Riccardo Zanellato (bass)
Chicago Symphony Chorus & Children’s Choir
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Riccardo Muti
rec. live, June 2017, Orchestra Hall, Chicago
Reviewed as a 24/96 download
No booklet
CSO RESOUND CSOR9011801 [68:37] 

Anyone who collected Italian opera recordings in the 1970s will remember how Riccardo Muti (EMI) and Claudio Abbado (Deutsche Grammophon) often went head to head with their Verdi sets. In particular, I remember agonising over their respective versions of Macbeth – as a hard-up student i couldn’t afford both – eventually settling for the Abbado. That was a good choice, as the recently remastered Universal BD-A and high-res download confirms. However, I much preferred Muti’s more dramatic Aida, which he subsequently revisited for Orfeo d’Or (live, Munich, 1979).

As music director of the Chicago Symphony, a post he’s held since 2010, Muti has given us some outstanding orchestral recordings, chief among them Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet suites and Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique/Lélio. ‘A high-water mark in recorded sound; gorgeous playing’ was my verdict on the former. As for the latter, a Recording of the Month, I wrote: ‘Superb, even revelatory accounts of both works; top-flight engineering, too’. Indeed, under Muti I’d say the CSO and Andris Nelsons’ Bostonians are now the pre-eminent US orchestras, with others trailing in their wake. It certainly helps that both are supported by tech teams who are also at the top of their game.

Nabucco, premiered at La Scala in 1842, was Verdi’s operatic breakthrough. The work is probably best known for ‘Va, pensiero’, the Hebrew slaves’ chorus, said to be a rallying cry for the Risorgimento. That’s now been called into question, but what’s beyond doubt is the quality of Verdi’s score. Muti blends Rossinian bounce with a lovely cantilena style in both the overture and the chorus, ‘Gli arredi festivi’. There’s a thrilling sense of anticipation and theatricality in the curtain raiser, the Chicago brass especially well caught. Here, as elsewhere, the pliancy and character of these fine players took my breath away. Rhythms are incisive but not regimented, and there’s an exhilarating drive that amply demonstrates Muti’s affection and feel for this repertoire. The chorus, perfectly placed and passionately sung, is no less compelling.

As I’ve come to expect from CSO Resound, the recording is astonishing in its range, detail and sense of presence. Indeed, producer David Frost and his team have outdone themselves with this one; in particular, balances are so natural and the stereo image is broad, deep and rock steady. Just sample the orchestral crescendo at the start of ‘Patria oppressa’, from Macbeth: goodness, I’ve seldom heard it delivered with such implacable intensity, the dark thunder of the bass drum as blood-curdling as it gets. Muti phrases and paces the music so intuitively, and the choir sing with such feeling that one could hardly imagine this lament better done. But it’s the unwavering attention to nuance and colour – the soft bass-drum beats subtly yet keenly felt, those pizzicati full and firm – that reminds us what a fine orchestrator Verdi was, even this early in his career. Then there’s the poignant, understated sign-off, which surely foreshadows the composer near his peak (Simon Boccanegra especially).

And while the CSO are a cool north American band, Muti makes them play like a warm, deeply idiomatic south European one; it all sounds so luscious, so rounded, like a sun-kissed peach ripe for the plucking. This conductor was something of a showman in his younger days, but older now, and with nothing to prove, he can just let the music speak for itself. Cue the gripping overture to Les vêpres siciliennes, written for Paris in 1855 and then translated into Italian as I vespri siciliani. What a joy it is to hear this music played with such ease and atmosphere, tuttis crisp, strings silky and songful. Once again, there’s a delicious air of anticipation, with that powerful but proportionate bass drum and the heraldic brass adding to a sense of impending spectacle. This really is an opener that seems to encapsulate the entire opera in just a few glorious minutes.

Muti never took to Puccini in the same way he did to Verdi, though he did record Manon Lescaut twice (Deutsche Grammophon and Arthaus Musik). The Internezzo is plangently played here, the Chicago strings at their lustrous best. As ever, Muti sustains a lovely singing line, the tuttis very dramatic indeed. And if it were possible, instrumental timbres seem more faithfully rendered than before. Attractive as that interlude is, it’s the one from Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana that’s most often included in collections of this kind. Ubiquity has a habit of draining pleasure from a given piece, so it’s a measure of Muti’s skill that he reanimates and renews this oft-played piece. Perfectly poised, the organ and harp simply magnificent, this sumptuous little number never sounds dull or hackneyed here.

Near Instantaneous Companded Audio Multiplex – Nicam for short – remember that? The very first TV broadcast I recorded on my suitably equipped VCR was a performance of Boito’s Mefistifele, as presented by Maurizio Arena and the the San Francisco Opera in 1989 (Arthaus Musik). It’s a sensational production, and the sound, as captured on my machine, was a knock-out. Muti and his La Scala forces recorded the opera for Sony-RCA in 1995, but, as good as that is, this new account of the prologue makes me long for a complete performance from Chicago. Climaxes are formidable, not overblown, and Muti paces it all so well. Bass Riccardo Zanellato is excellent in the name part, and the massed choirs sing radiantly throughout. The visual impact of Robert Carsen’s San Francisco staging is hard to beat, yet this splendid opener from Chicago brings back all the excitement of that epic performance. Samuel Ramey, a truly magnetic Mephistopheles, repeated the role for Muti six years later.

From the quietest moments of those lovely interludes to Boito’s blazing peaks, Charlie Post (sound engineer), Silas Brown (mastering) and David Frost (editing and mixing) have captured every aspect of this concert. And despite being a live event, there are no audible compromises. Also, you’d never know an audience was present, as there are no ‘noises off’ and the applause has been edited out. However, I was tempted to add my own, notably at the very end, where, like the heavens, Orchestra Hall resounds to Boito’s ecstatic choirs and cowers from that final, emphatic drum thwack. What a pleasure it is to encounter an album of operatic excerpts that’s consistently dramatic and delivered with consummate style and commitment. My only quibble is that neither the Presto nor the Qobuz download includes a pdf booklet. I hope that omission will be rectified without delay.

A peach of a programme, with playing, singing and sonics to match; quite possibly my first Recording of the Year for 2019.

Dan Morgan

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