Review: Muti conducts Beethoven / Musikverein

Musikverein, Vienna, 7 May 2024

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 9

by Kirsten Liese (Translation: Charles Scribner)

The opening passage of this symphony is most difficult because of its otherworldly aura, according to Muti. The tonality remains elusive until after several measures the low strings arrive at the tonic keynote: it is like looking up to the heavens with the musicians.

But there was no evident elusiveness on May 7 in the Golden Hall of Vienna’s Musikverein, where the Vienna Philharmonic under Muti’s baton performed  Beethoven’s Ninth two hundred  years after its premiere. The seasoned eighty-two-year-old maestro, who has been working with this orchestra for half a century, bowed humbly before the score (he had tackled the Missa Solemnis only after fifty years of study),  and launched into in those magical opening measures with all his natural instinct.

This mysterious entry ‘ex nihilo’  is followed,  a few measures later,  by  a dramatic development  toward  the first dynamic climax.  With Muti,  it all unfolds organically, with minimal  gestures charged with energy.

Throughout the first movement, the maestro conjured up a  ghostly drama that made one’s blood run cold. In this last concert, it proved even more explosive than in the performance I attended on May 5th (the Vienna Philharmonic celebrated the bicentennial anniversary with a total of four concerts). I  must  confess that I had never heard the 18-minute opening movement of the Ninth sound  so stirring, not even under Karajan.  Muti achieved this effect, moreover, not from any posture but drawing from his own experience.

In the violent fortissimo beats  toward  the middle of the movement, I heard for the first time how arrhythmically the instrumental groups seemed at odds with each other, as if waging battles in sound. In this respect the work today sounds strangely  ‘modern’ : at  times everything seems out of balance, as if in chaos, only to recover in the end–by sheet magic—harmony. With all his forcefulness, Muti remained the solid rock in the breakers, ensuring that no voice got lost in the polyphonic eddies.

In the  second movement  Muti  once again vividly traced the various strands of music: from the lighter woodwind interludes with his hand held flat in small wavelike movements, to the powerful forte gestures with tight chopping or (as in gymnastics)  ‘cutting’  movements of the forearm.  Yet that word is not quite apt since there was no real ‘cutting’ here. Rather, Muti  achieved  a wonderful sense of musical ‘speech’ down to the smallest inflections, admittedly with  a very different tonality from that of Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who coined the phrase ‘music as speech’. Muti’s sound was never harsh, but always compact and well-rounded; in the lyrical moments the Viennese played with broad flourishes and breathing phrases in a cantabile (singing) and legatissimo (seamless) manner; with precise punctuation, not even the smallest syllable was lost.

To the  Vienna Philharmonic it was self-evident that this anniversary be entrusted to Muti, according to  Daniel Froschauer, the orchestra’s Chairman of the  Board. In addition to the aforementioned reasons,  the 82-year-old maestro takes his place in  a long line of eminent  Beethoven conductors, including Arturo Toscanini and Antonino Votto, Muti’s former teacher. No other conductor today is more grounded in  Viennese classicism –Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven—or is able to make the strings sing so memorably.

That was especially  evident in the final concert  on May 7th. The Adagio, the heart of the symphony, once  again emerged as if  from nowhere, out of this world, performed with utmost devotion by Muti and the Viennese musicians.. The maestro turned to the first violins playing the poignant melody, leaning slightly to the side towards them. Pure magic filled the hall.

The Musikverein had been completely sold out for months; everyone held his or her breath in reverence; no coughing, no clearing of throats, , nothing but the music—right up to the last movement.

The moment the double basses started to play the “Ode to Joy” (Götterfunken)  theme for the first time it caused goosebumps.  Another such moment is when silence gives birth to sound– a sound so round and beautiful, and so otherwise unexpected from those bass instruments.

The magnificent chorus of the Wiener Singverein, rehearsed by Johannes Prinz, proved the ideal counterpart to the orchestra and conductor as it blended  with  waves of rapture.

The quartet of soloists was not entirely satisfactory, yet underscored  how difficult the music is to sing as well as to play. At the premiere on May 7, 1824 in the Kärtnerthortheater, not everything went smoothly,  Froschauer reported, as the “technical bar” had been set so high.

Among the vocal parts, the soprano’s is especially challenging, with so many wild leaps in high notes. One could hear how much it taxed  Julia Kleiter’s voice. Indeed, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who sang that  soprano part under Furtwängler, once emphasized how difficult that music is, even though it does  not have to carry the melody. Beethoven assigned that role to the bass. Günther Groissböck began his “O Freunde! Nicht diese Töne”  (“O friends, not these tones”) with great volume, but unevenly: strained in the high notes and with  some intonation problems in the lower register. Marianne Crebassa and Michael Spyres sang the alto and tenor parts adequately.

Such shortcomings did not, however, dim the overall brilliance of the event, which made history.  The audience responded with euphoric—and well deserved—applause at the conclusion of  this banner evening  for peace, brotherhood and charity. Without exaggeration, it was the concert of the century.

Riccardo Muti. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

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