Classical CD Reviews: Riccardo Muti’s Italian Masterpieces, Thierry Fischer conducts Saint-Saëns, and Tasmin Little Plays…

Richard Muti draws playing of full-blooded passion from Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Thierry Fischer conducts Camille Saint-Saëns with a sure hand, and violinist Tasmin Little’s new recording of neglected violin-and-piano pieces by mid- and late-Romantic women composers is terrific.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Riccardo Muti’s tenure as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) has, among other things, established the orchestra as one of the world’s premiere Verdi ensembles. His new recording with the ensemble on its in-house label, CSO Resound, cements this.

In excerpts from Nabucco, Macbeth, and I vespri siciliani, Muti draws playing of full-blooded passion from his orchestra. Certainly, it’s not all naked emotionalism: the harp and flute playing during Nabucco’s opening chorus is rendered with exquisite delicacy and Macbeth’s “Patria oppressa” is freighted with despair.

But the CSO taps into this repertoire with an immediacy that’s gripping and their accounts of the overtures at least (Nabucco and I vespri siciliani) easily equal Muti’s classic (and still quite fine) thiryt-plus-year-old recordings of the same with the forces at La Scala.

If you want more than just Verdi, there’s plenty here to please, including a lovely Cavalleria Rusticana Interlude and a sumptuous account of the Act 2 Intermezzo from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, which showcases the CSO’s principal viola and cello (in this performance, respectively, Li-Kuo Chang and John Sharp) to fine effect over the opening bars.

Capping it all off is a stirring account of the Prologue from Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele. Riccardo Zanellato is commanding in the title role, and the Chicago Children’s Choir and CSO Chorus sing with rhythmic agility and tonal warmth. At the heart of it, though, is the CSO, playing with blazing fervor and excitement.

It’s rousing, all of it – and a bit of a teaser: one wouldn’t mind a complete Mefistofele from these forces (or Nabucco or Macbeth, for that matter). Still, what we’ve got here are some fine excerpts played and sung to the hilt. If that has to be enough, well, so be it.

You can almost bank on a new album of Camille Saint-Saëns’ orchestral music including either the Organ Symphony (no. 3) or the “Bacchanale” from Samson et Dalila. The Utah Symphony’s new Saint-Saëns disc, the first installment of a projected three-part survey of the composer’s neglected larger symphonic output (for Hyperion), actually includes both of them.

That turns out to be a good thing. First, because each of those pieces come off with rousing intensity and lots of color. Second, because the rest of the recording is devoted to a terrific performance of the (very) obscure (and substantial) Trois tableaux symphoniques d’après La foi.

Saint-Saëns wrote his incidental music to Eugène Briuex’s play La foi in 1909, more than thirty years after completing the Organ Symphony. Stylistically, it comes from the same hand. There are lots of atmospheric touches, like the first movement’s exotic percussion scoring (which includes a sistrum) and the second’s striking use of harmonium with harp. Harmonically, Saint-Saëns’ late language suggests a composer moving freely towards the fringes of tonality even while, structurally, the score’s outer movements feel a bit episodic.

That said, there’s lots going on in the piece that catches the ear. And you’ll be hard-pressed to find it played with greater authority or technical refinement than the Utahans deliver (even as the present recording seems to be the only one in the catalogue of the Trois tableaux symphoniques: suffice it to say, it sets the bar high).

As for the rest, well, the Utahans play the “Bacchanale” exuberantly: the final refrain is about as slinky and bombastic as you might want. And their performance of the Symphony is no slouch, either.

Paul Jacobs is the organist and he delivers his part (which is a subordinate, not a soloistic, one) with a kind of understated majesty. The second movement simply glows, while the finale drives with unrelenting vigor.

Thierry Fischer conducts it all with a sure hand. The Symphony is smartly paced, thoughtfully shaped, and beautifully balanced. Those same qualities mark the Trois tableaux symphoniques and the “Bacchanale” – indeed, this is Saint-Saëns played with power and purpose. Can’t wait for the next installments to come along.

You can hardly ask for more from violinist Tasmin Little’s new recording of neglected violin-and-piano pieces by mid- and late-Romantic women composers. From the technical angle, all is superb: Little’s phrasings are smart, her intonation perfect, and her shaping of the music’s dynamics and articulations consistent. Expressively, she clearly loves these pieces, playing them each with warmth and soul.

It’s hard to imagine, for instance, a more fervent account of Amy Beach’s brilliant Violin Sonata in A minor than the one Little and pianist John Lenhan turn in here. This 1896 score, which followed on the heels of Beach’s exhilarating Gaelic Symphony, channels some of Brahms’ and Dvorak’s rhythmic games, but it’s steeped in Beach’s singular lyrical style, the big outer movements framing a droll, hiccupping scherzo and a soaring, intense slow movement.

In Little’s hands, the incisive violin writing really catches fire, while the introspective moments (like the first movement’s second theme) simply float. A similar sensitivity to expressive nuance marks her readings of Beach’s Romance and Invocation.

Little and Lenehan make correspondingly fresh work of Clara Schumann’s Three Romances. Written for Joseph Joachim in 1853, they are, like Clara’s songs, mellifluous and, for the pianist especially, involved. Here, the duo delivers a burnished account of the first Romance, gamely dances through the shadows of the second, and make sweetly wistful work of the last.

Filling out the Chandos album is a lively rendition of Ethyl Smyth’s Violin Sonata in A minor. This is a Sonata that’s more clearly indebted to Brahms than Beach’s; one never quite escapes the influential shadow of the older composer. Still, the current performance is first-rate, with the mystery of the first movement’s opening theme coming across compellingly; the scherzo’s charm fully intact; a darkly lilting account of the slow movement speaking powerfully; and the finale’s stormy last bars boiling over.

Ensemble-wise, Little and Lenehan prove an ideally-matched pair. The keyboard writing in each piece is highly involved – often soloistic, in fact – and Lenehan’s execution of it all is particularly fine: clean, well-balanced, and thoughtfully shaped. But he gracefully cedes the spotlight to Little and the two respond to one another’s playing with such sympathetic energy that these performances really take off.

A terrific disc for the New Year, then: a couple of top-flight artists providing the just the type of advocacy one might desire for this unjustly maligned fare.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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1 Comment

  1. Album Reviews - Utah Symphony on October 31, 2020 at 10:17 am

    […] “Terrific performance. Can’t wait for the next installments to come along.” – The Arts Fuse […]

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