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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Concert Review: A Coal of Fire Upon the Ice

Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
An action shot of Riccardo Muti (center, back to camera) leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Image © 2015 Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
It is the privilege of a great conductor to bring little-known music to another city and present it to a curious, yet largely trusting audience. Such privilege was exercised Sunday at Carnegie Hall, when Riccardo Muti led the third and last of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's concerts on that hallowed stage this season. The program, which featured not just the Orchestra but the equally impressive Chicago Symphony Chorus, paired two Russian composers who could not be more different: Alexander Scriabin and Serge Prokofiev.


Scriabin (whose Symphony No. 3 was the centerpiece of Friday night's concert) is a special passion of Mr. Muti's. He stands apart from other Russian composers, having absorbed and embraced both the chromaticism and megalomania that characterized the later works of Richard Wagner. Here, Mr. Muti chose to perform the Symphony No. 1 (1900) the composer's second orchestral work. It is ambitious to the point of ridicule, lasting six movements with the finale requiring a chorus, tenor and mezzo singing a hymn to (capital A) Art.
 
In the face of all this hot-house inspiration, it was Mr. Muti the strict classicist who unveiled the real structure of this work. Scriabin's slow, dream-like outer movements frame a fairly standard four-movement symphony, which walks through each of the standard  forms (sonata, slow movement, dance movement, finale) before returning to the chromatic world of dreams for the sung finale. This long detour (which sounds like a student exercise inserted as the center of a much more ambitious work) was played in an amiable fashion, with the plush tone quality of the CSO more than compensating for the middling material.

It was in the finale that this work approached anything remotely like transcendence. It was helped by the presence of two very strong soloists. Sergey Skorokhodov is a Russian tenor in the classic mold, with a tendency toward hard, bright tone that has a core of sweetness underneath the steel. He was well matched with mezzo-soprano Alisa Kolosova, their voices twining and caressing each other in praise of Scriabin's own creative spirit. The chorus' entry was magnificent, reminding the listener of Mr. Muti's tremendous chops as a leader of vocal music: from a soft growl to a mighty roar that brought this middling work to a glorious conclusion.

The second half of the concert featured Prokofiev's cantata Alexander Nevsky, itself based on the composer's film score for Sergei Eisenstein's 1938 film of the same name. This is solid, muscular music, Prokofiev's first major work written upon his return to what was now the Soviet union. There is no mysticism here, only stolid choral singing that depicts Nevsky's heroic, pious nature and the invasion of Russia by Teutonic knights in 1242. The film was the first and most significant of Prokofiev and Eisenstein's collaborations and is a virtual textbook for students of cinematic music.

Although writing for a Soviet audience, Prokofiev used his knowledge of religious music here to almost subversive effect, contrasting the Russian church modes (used for Nevsky's forces) with a jagged Latin plainchant, almost a satire of the Dies Irae. Chorus yielded to orchestra as these two opposing musical ideas met in the Battle on the Ice. A chugging, ascending figure in the basses made one thing of a certain large cinematic shark trapped and circling under the frozen surface of Lake Peipus. The death (by drowning, as the ice broke) of the Teuton army was accompanied by a thunderous climax, and Prokofiev used hollow woodwind notes and string tremolos to convey the psychological shock of this event.

Then came the most beautiful movement of this work: a solo aria for Ms. Kolosova. To sparse orchestration, she searched among the wounded for a man who would be suitable to marry, lamenting the death of so many strong Russian solders and potential husbands. The finale went back to the bombastic style of the early pages, this time with voices raised in triumph in celebration of the victory of Aleksandr Nevsky. The real triumph here was that of Mr. Muti and his vast Chicago forces: they had invaded Carnegie Hall and like Nevsky, they had earned their victory.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.