The Italian conductor Riccardo Muti celebrated his 80th birthday on July 28th. Warner pays homage to him by publishing the complete symphonic recordings made for EMI, a box of 91 CDs. The publication of the Warner box set makes us realize a phenomenon quite comparable to the Zubin Mehta case. While traditionally, in the history of musical interpretation, music lovers tend to seek the testimonies of conductors in their maturity, at the height of their wisdom, do we care about what Riccardo Muti has to tell us musically? today in the symphonic field?
We have even lost the thread of his discographic legacy, the nectar of which seems to be refocused on his engravings of the conquest of notoriety and power documented here.
Riccardo Muti has been the Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 2010. He was the prime candidate for conducting the New York Philharmonic when everything went downhill and Muti, in extremis, Chicago preferred. The reason for the surprise appointment of Allan Gilbert to New York City who, in the initial game plan, was to be Muti’s deputy to cover the American repertoire, which the Italian conductor hardly takes, is not to be looked any further.
Although Chicago publishes its own records, Muti’s releases over the past decade have not left their mark: a new Requiem by Verdi, a Fantastic symphony coupled with Lélio, a 13e of Shostakovich (excellent), a 9e by Bruckner, Italian plays, the Michelangelo sonnets by Shostakovich.
An artist of opinions
The core of the EMI legacy, published by Warner, dates basically from 1973 to 1993, with rare exceptions. Muti has also recorded at Philips, notably with the Vienna Philharmonic (magnificent Mozart), and twenty records of a mainly lyrical repertoire for Sony.
During the pandemic, Muti made a name for himself by taking positions, in particular against the confinement of the arts or on the conflict of the Met. This way of getting involved in everything could have annoyed.
It was forgetting that young Muti was already used to anathemas. In his work Conductors on Record (1982), John L. Holmes quotes Muti: “There is in the European orchestral tradition a warmth and spontaneity with which the American orchestras, more virtuosos, cannot compete. This edifying declaration comes just before the appointment of the chef… to the succession of Eugène Ormandy in Philadelphia!
Met a few years ago in Lanaudière, the dean of musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Jerome Wigler, who died in July 2021 at the age of 101, recalled: “When Muti arrived, he said: ‘The Philadelphia sound, it does not exist”. In Wigler’s mind, Muti had been bent on trying to destroy this legendary Philadelphia sound, the DNA of the orchestra, to impose its style. Muti’s EMI records featured the “The New Philadelphia Sound” logo. Understand who can.
What Muti was in fact combating fiercely was any intrusion into the score intended to make the music sound better, a specialty of his predecessors Stokowski and Ormandy. “When you go to a museum, you don’t say about a painting: ‘It’s beautiful, but give me a brush, I’ll touch up a detail in the corner”. What is unthinkable in painting is common in music ”(Musical America, mars 1978).
Rigor and impact
The EMI legacy is shared primarily between the London Philharmonia and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The year 1993 corresponds to the departure of Muti from Philadelphia and the stop of the recording of American orchestras by the majors of the disc. The market then began to level off, and sales no longer covered the exorbitant registration costs in the United States.
Before taking over the 44-year reign of Ormandy in Philadelphia, Riccardo Muti, winner in 1967 of the Cantelli Competition, had built his notoriety on a success-story with the London Philharmonia. He was appointed there in 1973, at the age of 32, revived and energized an orchestra then in decline following the interminable musical agony of Otto Klemperer (1885-1973).
Muti’s work was based on rigor and intransigence, a work quickly embodied on the record by Schumann’s symphonies of frenzied precision. From his Rossini overtures, engraved between 1978 and 1980, Muti made a showcase for this work. He knew very well that this disc would necessarily be measured against the version (DG) of his Italian rival, Claudio Abbado, recorded in the same city, in 1971 and 1975 with the London Symphony.
The word “imperious” is the one that characterizes the style of this conductor, not even forty years old, who found in the studio the mythical Sviatoslav Richter (Beethoven and Mozart), with whom he made his professional debut at the Florentine Musical Mai in 1969.
It is this Riccardo Muti master of musical impact who makes an impression in London in Ivan le terrible de Prokofiev, Carmina Burana and the symphonies of Tchaikovsky and which will give, even before his nomination to Philadelphia in 1980, striking records with the American orchestra: Pictures at an exhibition, Rite of Spring and the Tricorne by Manuel de Falla coupled with Rapsodie espagnole by Ravel. This is the nectar of the chef’s recordings, a category in which, in 1981, excerpts from Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev and Scheherazade de Rimsky-Korsakov.
From this period, 1978, and with the Philadelphia Orchestra, date the two real rarities of the box: the 6e and 7e Symphonies of Beethoven engraved long before the complete (rather disappointing, because cold) of the mid-1980s and never reissued on CD. The exuberant finale of the Seventhshows Muti’s debt to Toscanini and Karajan, the patriarch who put his foot in the stirrup in Salzburg, in So do all of them with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1971.
The sound question
Perfectionism and tension can bring a certain rigidity which hinders musical animation in his London Mendelssohn recordings, for example, compared to Kurt Masur (Symphony nO 3).
The reign in Philadelphia will be marked by a reference integral of Scriabin’s symphonies and the Roman trilogy by Respighi. But Riccardo Muti then also recorded in Europe for EMI, including excellent symphonies by Schubert in Vienna and well-forgotten records with the Berlin Philharmonic (4e and 6e de Bruckner, Jupiter by Mozart and Water Music by Handel). Nothing imperishable, in fact, apart from the Four sacred coins He also gave.
Distributed among several orchestras, a large anthology of Masses by Cherubini, which continued until 2001 and 2006, is unique, but also published in a separate box.
So, what disappointments? The first, which does not depend on the publisher, is that we do not really rediscover much (the Faust symphony de Liszt, Romeo and Juliet de Berlioz, dumped; a Boleroslow but sumptuous).
The main downside is mainly technical. What this set recalls, at least as much as the style of the conductor in his heyday, is that the “orchestral recording” product was really not at the same level at EMI as at Decca, for example. Some of these remarkable performances would probably be essential historical milestones with a transparent, dynamic, flourishing and airy “real sound”. This art, this commitment and this precision deserved less tension. This goes for both the London recordings (Symphonies nyou 25 and 29 by Mozart, Carmina Burana, scathing Requiem by Verdi) than for the first digital recordings in Philadelphia. What do we mean in the Symphony by Franck (1981, Philadelphia)? The interpretation of a chef or a vague idea of it? What was really the Symphony by Franck de Muti in Philadelphia in 1981, with what luxuriant colors and how deep in the sound spectrum?
Unlike the set of Mehta-Los Angeles-Decca recordings, which still live and vibrate today, we are struck by the “photo” or “preserved” aspect of the vast majority of these documents, despite their musical quality.
It would be very interesting to have a box of Philips recordings from Muti to gauge if it communicates the same feeling.