Riccardo Muti is not a maestro to mince words or elude political controversy. His interruption of a performance of Nabucco in Rome five years ago in the presence of Silvio Berlusconi to bemoan the abysmal state of the arts in Italy caused “il Cavaliere” even more embarrassment than Ruby the Heartbreaker. Similarly, his view on orchestras is unequivocal. In Muti’s opinion there are only three great orchestras in the world – the Vienna Philharmonic, the Berliner Philharmoniker and his own Chicago Symphony. Muti’s association with the Viennese musicians goes back to 1971 and their mutual admiration endures. In selecting the programme for this matinee concert, Muti was honouring the orchestra’s extraordinary history and traditions. Both Richard Strauss’ orchestral suite Le Bourgeois gentilhomme and Bruckner’s Second Symphony were given their world premières by the Vienna Philharmonic and on each occasion (1920 and 1873 respectively) conducted by the composers themselves. Not a bad pedigree.

Riccardo Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic © Salzburger Festspiele / Marco Borrelli
Riccardo Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic
© Salzburger Festspiele / Marco Borrelli

Strauss was especially fond of this orchestra and conducted it over 100 times. In Le Bourgeois gentilhomme the neo-classic chamber-like orchestration makes the texture of the work both pellucid and intimate. It is also a marvelous showpiece for various soloists. Strauss thought that the pretentiousness of Molière’s character on whom the suite is based incredibly funny and humour is evident throughout the scoring from insolent clarinet chirps to elephantine stomping in the trombones.

In this performance however there was also a silvery translucency in Muti’s reading which was utterly seductive. Although the opening few bars were slightly hesitant, the ensemble quickly settled into some gently syncopated rhythms in the strings and piano. By the time the oboe introduced the contrasting lilting 6/8 theme, things were as stylish as a soirée musicale at Versailles. Clarinet, bassoon and horns all performed a perfectly balanced pavane. Although taken slightly slower than usual, both minuets enjoyed some exquisitely articulated flute playing. Not to be left out, raspy trombones and a blazing solo trumpet triumphed in the feisty “The Fencing Master” section. The frequent violin solos by retiring concert master Rainer Küchl displayed adroit double-stopping, wonderful tone colour and inherently Viennese rubato. The pianissimo opening to “Entry of Cléonte” was a masterpiece of delicate dynamic control. Only the slightest shimmer of a string sound could be heard.  The full forces of the chamber orchestra were released in the final 2/4 alla marcia Tafelmusik section, this time revealing pristine percussion playing. The contrasting Andante solo cello section showed Strauss’ astounding ability to create sublime melodies. The first cellist eschewed the temptation to turn the elegiac cantilena into a Mozartkugel and like everything else about the performance, it was music making of impeccable taste, sonorous subtlety and perfect courtly musical manners.

As much as the Vienna Philharmonic revered Richard Strauss, they took to Anton Bruckner with unconcealed disdain. Probably the socially inept organist from Ansfelden in Upper Austria wasn’t quite sophisticated enough for the congenitally snobbish Viennese. Bruckner conducted the orchestra only once (the première of the Second Symphony) and when he offered to dedicate the work to the orchestra, his letter was left unanswered.

As was his wont, Bruckner was constantly tinkering with his symphonies, and the Second was no exception. It went through four revisions and, like Carlo Maria Giulini, Muti opted for the 1877 Nowak edition. It is certainly not an easy work, and the frequent pauses which infuriated the original Philharmonic players, make equipoise of tempo extremely taxing. Muti’s control over these fermate was flawless. The cohesion with which the huge orchestra observed his every disengage direction was immaculate.

The opening descending four-note theme whispered by the cellos under the Bruckner trade-mark tremolo strings was profoundly wistful. Its development by the other sections of the orchestra was magnificent in scope and breadth, with some especially sensitive playing from the first clarinet and horns. Insistent same-note punctuated rhythms in the brass underlined a sense of urgency. The meditative Adagio again revealed the luxurious velvet sound of the Vienna strings with some finely controlled diminuendi and crescendi. The first horn was also particularly impressive with exemplary breath control and phrasing. Things were definitely getting to the Sturm und Drang stage by the Scherzo and there were some tremendous dotted rhythm fortes interspersed with delicate flute playing.

The Finale was about as musically manic as one could imagine. Insistent fortissimo repeated triplet punctuation in the brass underpinned the sheer dramatic force if not brutality of this movement, only to be met time and again by lyrical interludes, especially in the flutes and strings. Bruckner’s prowess for climax interruptus knows no equal. The forces Muti unleashed at the stupendous conclusion to the symphony made it quite clear that any scepticism the forefathers of the Vienna Philharmonic may have had about Bruckner were long since put to rest. Pure magic.