Sydney Opera House, Concert Hall
May 2, 2018

Riccardo Muti has been cutting a (very elegant) swathe through concert halls and opera houses from Milan to Philadelphia for 40 years. The prospect of seeing and hearing him conduct a reunion of what must be the musical world’s greatest diaspora of talent certainly created a frisson. The program, on paper at least, seemed unambitiously mainstream: Brahms’ Second and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth symphonies. However, on closer inspection, it yielded far more interest. Both works could be called Romantic, both were composed virtually contemporaneously by composers who were also near contemporaries. Yet Brahms and Tchaikovsky were both, emotionally and idiomatically, polarities.

Riccardo Muti, Australian World Orchestra, AWORiccardo Muti conducting the Australian World Orchestra. Photo © David Collins

Muti was a Young Turk, who succeeded Klemperer as Chief Conductor of London’s legendary Philharmonia Orchestra. He was renowned for rhythmic precision, Italianate intensity and whiplash attack, among other qualities. Only a musician of Muti’s stature could meld almost 100 musicians who normally perform in a wide range of music ensembles with varying stylistic requirements into not only a viable, but virtuosic, whole. It was fascinating to experience his reading of the opening movement of the Brahms: in what must surely be his sunniest symphonic movement (pace Sir Simon Rattle’s bizarre attempt to say otherwise during an interview preceding a 2016 London Proms performance with his Berlin Philharmonic) Muti gave one of the most leisurely performances I’ve ever heard. It was languorous and luxuriant but never indulgent or sluggish. No one can ‘hide’ in this music and every section acquitted themselves nobly. Significantly, Muti included the exposition repeat, which, like its equivalent in Schubert’s last Piano Sonata, D.960, recalibrates the entire movement and at this tempo, makes it as long as the three subsequent movements combined. Once you’ve heard the repeat in a performance of this calibre, any performance without it sounds truncated. The only trace of melancholia comes in the Symphony’s slow movement where the cellos and bassoons and syncopated woodwind in general distinguished themselves. In the third movement, the pastoral oboe contributed gorgeous pinpricks of sound. The ebullient proceedings of the final movement were a joy to hear as the entire orchestra sang in a final triumph.

Riccardo Muti, Australian World Orchestra, AWORiccardo Muti conducting the Australian World Orchestra. Photo © David Collins

In the late 70s and early 80s, Muti produced a Tchaikovsky cycle with the Philharmonia, which, 40 years later, is still highly regarded. This occasion demonstrated he’s lost none of his energy or panache. What he displayed was a masterful command of musical pulse: how to establish and vary it, in the often neurasthenic convulsions, conflict and spiritual turmoil of the difficult first movement. The opening trumpet “motto” theme was played curiously legato but with brazen insistence (as it was whenever it recurred throughout the work). In the second movement, the oboe solo was especially exquisite. Muti did a huge ritard at the end, but it worked. In the pizzicato of the third movement, the strings deserve special praise, as do the woodwind and brass in their piquant interjections. The manic gaiety of the “Russian dance” final movement brought great energy and drama, while, all the time, not managing to dispel the image of the “Sword of Damocles” hanging over the composer.

This was one of the most exhilarating concerts I’ve attended in a long time and another eloquent reassurance of the eminent place of Australian musicians in the world.

Riccardo Muti conducts the Australian World Orchestra at Sydney Opera House again on May 4, and at Hamer Hall, Melbourne on May 5