Who would have thought that Chicago, formerly a city of gangsters and slaughterhouses, and now of the Gangnam-Style-dancing Barack Obama, would have spawned a world-class orchestra? Yet spawn one it did, and the two concerts by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) in Taipei’s National Concert Hall on Jan. 25 and Jan. 26 will be major items in the city’s musical year. The orchestra is visiting Taiwan for the first time as part of an Asian tour, and will be conducted by its current maestro Riccardo Muti. It’s rated as one of the “big five” orchestras in the US, and indeed in 2008 it was voted by London’s Gramophone magazine as the best American orchestra, and one of the top five orchestras in the world.
So it seems appropriate to look at some of their currently available products. It has to be said at the outset that there’s only one item at present featuring them under Muti, the pair of CDs containing Verdi’s Requiem. But the CSO has a long history of celebrity music directors, so their pre-Muti days are well documented. Indeed one is spoilt for choice when attempting a selection.
But first the Requiem. The work is characterized by a kind of savage splendor, the result of the atheist Verdi opting to set the traditional Catholic liturgy, and the tensions that arise from this. In an interview printed in the CD booklet Muti calls it a war between God and mankind. Muti is a native of Naples, and he says the southern Italians are used to making demands of God and receiving only an angry response. “You made us, so why are we so poor? And why do we have to die?” The implicit answer is that God is angry, as is expressed in the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) section of Requiem masses.
This seems to me a very sophisticated, even soignee Requiem. By this I mean that it’s finely recorded, meticulously sung, and can be played on the most expensive equipment to great effect. But at the same time I found it deficient in two areas. Firstly, as several people have commented, the four soloists aren’t on the same level as the orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Chorus, though the contralto Olga Borodina gives much pleasure. And secondly, it’s in some way over-polished, and perhaps over-rehearsed.
There isn’t that surge to glory that can occur when the greatest talents come together for a hurriedly-arranged live performance. And in a work where there are so many competing recordings available, this can’t really — despite its two Grammies — be judged equal to the very best, a category that some think includes Muti’s own 1979 version with Renata Scotto and Agnes Baltsa. Muti no doubt had everything money could buy at his disposal in Chicago, yet I have a feeling he won’t himself be re-listening to what he’s created on these CDs very often.
When it comes to earlier CSO recordings, Bernard Haitink, Muti’s predecessor in Chicago, dominates the orchestra’s contribution to the catalogue. French music, however, is arguably not really natural to the CSO, which from the start has been more often associated with the great German composers. Haitink’s CD of Poulenc’s Gloria and Ravel’s music for his ballet Daphnis and Chloe nonetheless has it merits. The Gloria, skittish and even flippant in Poulenc’s hands, benefits greatly from the participation of soprano Jessica Rivera. But Ravel’s ballet music is for the most part too understated to receive the CSO’s hallmark extrovert treatment.
The orchestra’s highly versatile brass section has always been praised, and so it wasn’t surprising when they issued a CD of it alone, playing a collection of works by various hands. Over an hour of brass, even augmented on occasion by timpani and percussion, might seem rather much, but then it can always be listened to piecemeal. The items include Walton’s Crown Imperial and Coronation March, which sounds as if they need drum majorettes to complete the picture, and scenes from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Only three pieces by Giovanni Gabrieli (1555 to 1612) were originally written for brass alone, and they sound today like introductions to a mini-series dealing with life in the time of Shakespeare. Other composers represented are Bach, Revueltas and Percy Grainger.
All these CDs are issued on the orchestra’s own label, CSO Resound, and come in both Hybrid SACD and standard versions.
Lastly, if you want to see the CSO 60 years ago, Video Artists International (VAI) has produced a DVD of historic telecasts dating from 1954 to 1963. I say “see” because the sound quality isn’t spectacular in the 1954 items, though it improves dramatically for the later ones. First you see the legendary Fritz Reiner conducting Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, as well as his Egmont overture and Handel’s The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, all in 1954. Reiner is the star of this DVD, even when he’s standing as unmoved as a stone statue, merely raising and lowering his baton while glowering at the instrumentalists like a menacing school-teacher who’ll never forget or forgive their shortcomings.
Next comes the great Leopold Stokowski conducting his orchestral version of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (the famous one, originally written for organ). This is magnificent, and a reminder of the virtues of this much-maligned arrangement. Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol follow. All three were recorded in 1962. The composer Paul Hindemith concludes the DVD conducting his own Concert Music for Strings and Brass, the First Movement (only) of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 and Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture.
Of the items reviewed here, I enjoyed this DVD the most, with honors distributed equally between Reiner’s Beethoven, Stokowski’s Bach and Brahms, and Hindemith’s Bruckner. It’s all in black-and-white.
All in all, the Chicago Symphony is a famous orchestra with many very impressive achievements. Next month, all things being equal, we’ll consider Haitink’s record in conducting them, notably in the field of Mahler.