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At Ambassador : Impassioned Beethoven From Muti

June 04, 1986|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music Critic

Not every conductor takes Beethoven at his word when it comes to the allegro con brio marking at the beginning of the Beethoven Fifth.

Carlo Maria Giulini certainly didn't. He played those strokes of fate with ominous, gargantuan solemnity, punctuating the rhetoric with portentous Luftpausen .

Arturo Toscanini, at the other Italianate extreme, began the symphony with rapid, propulsive, frightening claps of thunder.

Riccardo Muti, who surveyed the mighty Fifth with the Philadelphia Orchestra Monday night at Ambassador Auditorium, obviously comes from the Toscanini school. He dug into the familiar opening chords with impetuosity and massive fury.

It was arresting, startling, refreshing.

The blazing intensity with which he attacked this convoluted symphonic essay never really flagged. In the Andante, he allowed the temporarily gentle rhetoric a little breathing space, and he actually permitted some fragile contrasts of mysterious calm. Even here, however, the momentum swept onward.

The scherzo, for all its poise and precision, suggested heroic frenzy. The finale, for all its exquisite ebb and flow of passion, built inexorably to a rapturous fortissimo catharsis.

Muti delineated his feverish perspective of the symphony with such urgency and such clarity that, for the moment at least, no other interpretation seemed possible. With a less responsive orchestra, his volatile impulses might have seemed overwrought. With the suavely virtuosic Philadelphians, however, even the most frantic playing sounded elegant.

Ultimately, as climax was piled upon climax, some intonation discrepancies did mar the sonic fabric. The problem probably can be attributed to a strange hall, an overcrowded stage and an oppressive acoustic--not to any inherent orchestral weakness.

Muti defined comparable elements of Sturm und Drang in Haydn's "Maria Theresia" Symphony. But here the surging emotions, brisk tempos and potentially violent drama never threatened the safety of classical order.

Although the pressures delineated by Haydn were clearly related to those that were to obsess Beethoven, Muti observed essential distinctions. With Haydn, the communicative affect depended on transparent textures, subtle melodic shading and a pervasive poise of articulation. With Beethoven, inhibition could be abandoned.

To open the program, Muti revived three little samples of Neapolitan nostalgia by the unduly neglected Giuseppe Martucci (1856-1909).

The lush Philadelphia strings shimmered through the ripe romantic indulgence of the Notturno, Opus 70, No. 1. The Giga, Opus 61, No. 3, introduced an element of arrestingly irregular buoyancy. The Novelletta, Opus 82, No. 2, offered intriguing harmonic spice.

Muti and the orchestra attended to Martucci's well-crafted trifles as if they were deathless masterpieces. This is, of course, the only way to approach such challenges.

Here, too, one sensed the abiding spirit of Toscanini.

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