Novelties in N.Y.: what visiting orchestras offer

Most of the top five orchestras offer seasons of 25 to 30 weeks. Not each new program can be a large-scale work, but if an orchestra is visiting New York, there is a greater tendency to schedule a novelty for that occasion, as in the Philadelphia Orchestra's April trio to Carnegie Hall. There, Riccardo Muti said goodbye to his position as principal guest conductor in preparation for taking over the full reins of the august institution. His vehicle was the Verdi "Requiem."

Muti has been the subject of an intensive media blitz from Angel Records that has put his face on most of the 24 releases of the past few years, and in the windows of countless record stores across the country. The campaign is uncommonly, perhaps even unprecedentedly, intense. Unfortunately, the records, with few exceptions, have not lived up to the type (but that is the topic of another story altogether).

The question was, would there be a difference between Riccardo Muti live and Muti on records? On the basis of the new Angel recording of the Verdi "Requiem" with the Philharmonia Orchestra of London, it would appear that he is very consistent. The "Requiem" in New York, which had followed several performances (including a TV taping) in Philadelphia, was as curiously unmoving and unfeeling as it is on records. Muti gets extraordinary sound out of this superb ensemble. But he seems to view the score as a progression of dynamic marks to be wildly exploited, and a series of tempos to be intensely overwrought. He never allowed the music the sort of breathing room it must have to make any real effect.

Most perplexing, however, was the utter lack of emotional projection of the music -- of the ability to transcend musical notation and orchestral timbres, and give a truly representative emotional-spiritual account of the score. From the man who has been building his career on faith to Verdi even to the banishing of all traditional interpolations and performance practices, this was a notably un-Verdian account of this moving, electrifying piece.

Of the four soloists, only Agnes Baltsa proved of any acceptable international standard. Her messo may be a bit light for the music, but she projects it with such earnest, communicative intensity in a magnificently controlled voice from top to bottom. Katia Ricciarelli proved yet again that Verdi is not her strength, so uneven is the vocal line and so erratic the singing. When one settles for Veriano Luchetti as the tenor soloist (this was his fourth "Requiem" in New York in just a few seasons) it is clear that the tenor crisis has reached alarming dimensions. Simon Estes lacks the true bass' low notes as well as the vocal majesty to make any sort of impression in this work.

fortunately, the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia Chorus supplied exceptional work.

Nonetheless, it is cause for some alarm that the music-director-to-be of one of the consistently finest orchestras in the land could not make more of an effect in what has become, of late, his signature piece.

Seiji Ozawa is not known as a profound conductor, and this lack has come under strenuous if justifiable fire of late in Boston. So expectations were not particularly high for his performance of Mahler's unjustly neglected Seventh Symphony, which closed the Boston Symphony Orchestra's 99th season. But the Friday afternoon performance proved quite a revelation.

The BSO has not sounded better in at least a decade, if not longer. So the level of technical accomplishment in this supremely difficult work was not at all surprising.

What was surprising was Ozawa's careful attention to colors. The opening solo, masterfully performed by trombonist Norman Bolter on the tenor horn, proved Ozawa was well attuned to the autumnal moodiness of the score. That mood pervades the entire work, one that is relatively free from the tortured neurotic agonizings of so much of the composer's work. The first movement had a coherency that eludes most conductors, the inner three movements, a coloristic variety Ozawa rarely discovers in the music he performs. And the Rondo-Finale had an edgy intense excitement that propelled it from shift to shift.Here, one could note a certain explicit optimism not actually inherent inthe music. But it is a small quibble with a superb performance that r evealed a facet of Ozawa not too often encountered, and that demonstrated anew what a dazzling virtuoso ensemble the BSO is today.

The influence Zubin Mehta is having on the New York Philharmonic is slowly (very slowly) having some lasting effect on the orchestra. There still seems to be an ingrained indifference, and it seems unlikely anyone will ever be able to get this ensemble to play consistently up to expectations. But from the opening of the Brahms "Academic Festival Overture" it was clear that the best of the Philharmonic is far better than at this time a year ago. And in Stravinsky's "Symphony in Three Movements," which is finally getting the exposure this vastly underrated piece deserves, the Philharmonic finds no problems coping with the orchestral complexities. Mehta's performance was gripping and committed.

One rarely encounters Elgar's Violin Concerto. Soloist Pinchas Zukerman allowed the first movement to pass with such brash indifference, one might just as well have been listening to Bruch. Not once did Zukerman deisn to tangle with Elgar's depths of emotions, and he proved often out of tune.

In the Andante, which requires gorgeous meditative tone, Zukerman suddenly sprang to life. And in the finale, he hit his stride -- not perhaps with intellectual depth or commitment, but at least Zukerman delivered unstintingly in the last two movements, reaching a superb peak in the extended cadenza. Throughout, Mehta offered a substantial, earthy approach that could have been handsomely provocative with a more probing soloist.

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