Artist Profile: Riccardo Muti

Riccardo Muti, born in Naples in 1941, is one of the most renowned conductors of the last 60 years. He is best known for his interpretations of the operas of Giuseppe Verdi, but he is also responsible for bringing lesser-known Italian composers such as Luigi Cherubini, Gaspare Spontini and Saverio Mercadante to the fore. Some of his fantastic and underrated works in the non-Italian repertoire include, but are not limited to, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Ravel, Scriabin, Shostakovich and Stravinsky. His commitment to strict adherence to the score has undoubtedly caused controversy, but it’s an integral aspect of what makes him one of the most conscientious and faithful conductors on the classical music scene.

He studied conducting with Antonino Votto, who was Toscanini’s right-hand man, at the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory in Milan, where he also studied composition – a bold choice, as composition studies in Italy typically last 10 years. This decision has proved beneficial for Muti, who says it has given him a deeper understanding of the technical structure of the compositions he conducts. During his time at the conservatory, he also served as a répétiteur in some of the vocal classes, enabling him to develop a nuanced understanding of the voice that sets him apart from many conductors. This has won him the praise of world-class singers such as Richard Tucker, Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and Agnes Baltsa.

I had never met a conductor who knew so much about the voice and the technical problems of voice production and control” – Brigitte Fassbänder

After winning the Guido Cantelli Prize in 1967, Riccardo Muti was asked by Vittorio Gui to conduct a recital in Florence with the pianist Sviatoslav Richter. The success of the concert prompted the organisers of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino to take steps to appoint Muti as musical director. He took up the post in 1968 and held it until 1980. During his tenure at the Maggio, he oversaw successful productions of operas including Aida, Iphigénie en Tauride, Guillaume Tell and Orfeo.

In 1972, Muti first led the Philharmonia Orchestra to astonishing success, replacing the indisposed Otto Klemperer. Impressed by his dynamism and determination as a conductor, Muti was appointed chief conductor by the Philharmonia’s management that year. His tenure was pivotal in revitalising an orchestra that had declined both artistically and financially during Klemperer’s final years. He restored the Philharmonia to the high standards it had achieved before Klemperer’s health began to fail, and laid the foundations for its status as one of Europe’s leading orchestras. It was with the Philharmonia that Muti conducted most of his symphonic work in the 1970s, including highly successful performances – later recorded in studio – of the Tchaikovsky and Schumann symphony cycles. The Philharmonia’s versatility has always been praised by Muti, so much so that it was the orchestra of choice for his operatic recordings until the early 1980s. Notable recordings include I puritani, Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci, Macbeth, Orfeo ed Euridice and Aida. Muti’s tenure as chief conductor of the Philharmonia lasted until 1982.

Eugene Ormandy, then music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, first saw Muti conducting in Florence in 1972. Impressed by what he saw, Ormandy invited Muti to conduct a series of concerts with the Philadelphia Orchestra. These performances were so successful that both the orchestra and Ormandy himself urged Muti to accept the role of music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra upon his retirement.

“When I saw Mr Muti conducting the [Philadelphia] Orchestra, I thought it would be wonderful for him to take over when the time came for me to retire” – Eugene Ormandy

In 1980, after an impressive 44 years with the orchestra, Ormandy retired and handed over the position of music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra to Muti, whose successful tenure lasted until 1992. Muti embraced the orchestra’s directness and incisiveness, which he found perfect for works by Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Bartók, Hindemith, Scriabin and contemporary composers such as Penderecki. He also lectured the orchestra on how strings were played in the 18th century, quoting Mozart’s letters in which he expressed his desired sound. The orchestra embraced and internalised this new approach to playing and became highly successful interpreters of composers such as Vivaldi, Haydn, Mozart and Schubert.

In 1986, Muti took over as music director of Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, replacing his ‘rival’ Claudio Abbado. He brought back classics such as Rigoletto and La traviata, which hadn’t been performed in the theatre for more than 20 years, with ravishing new productions. He also undertook ambitious projects, including the return of Der Ring des Nibelungen after a 20-year absence and performances of the Mozart-Da Ponte trilogy. Perhaps his most important contribution, however, was the revival of forgotten operas such as Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, Spontini’s La vestale, Cherubini’s Lodoïska and Salieri’s Europa riconosciuta, the opera performed at the theatre’s inauguration in 1778. Muti’s tenure at La Scala ended in 2005 after a dispute with Carlo Fontana, the general manager at the time.

After a period devoted to personal projects, including the founding of the Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini and a concert with the Vienna Philharmonic at the 2006 Salzburg Festival to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s birth, Muti was appointed music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for the 2010-2011 season. His successful tenure with the CSO lasted until 2023, when he was appointed Music Director Emeritus for life.

Muti has always been closely associated with the Vienna Philharmonic, ever since Herbert von Karajan asked him to conduct the orchestra at the 1971 Salzburg Festival. Their collaboration, spanning more than 50 years, has included many outstanding performances and recordings of Mozart’s operas and symphonic works, as well as an outstanding cycle of Schubert symphonies. He has also been invited to conduct the Vienna New Year’s Concert in 1993, 1997, 2000, 2004, 2018 and 2021, with an appearance scheduled for 2025, a testament to his enduring relationship with the revered orchestra.

Notable Recordings

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