Muti talks Schubert; also Brahms and Beethoven

Sat Jan 25, 2014 at 4:16 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Riccardo Muti will lead off a complete CSO cycle of Schubert symphonies January 30. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

 With the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Verdi bicentennial celebration completed, Riccardo Muti and the orchestra will now turn their attention to Franz Schubert, this season’s second featured composer. Starting Thursday night, Muti and the CSO, back from a successful European tour, will embark on a complete cycle of Schubert symphonies, which will run through the rest of the season.

The first two installments this month will include Schubert’s Third and Fourth symphonies; the Overture in the Italian Style (naturally) and Mass in A flat are on tap the following week. Ancillary Schubert programs include vocal recitals, including Matthias Goerne’s recent Die schone Mullerin, and a March performance of the “Trout” quintet with pianist Mistuko Uchida and CSO members.

While on the recent tour, the CSO’s music director took time out to talk about Schubert’s music via Facetime. The connection in Luxembourg proved somewhat intractable with occasional signal drops. “You know Luxembourg is very wealthy with a lot of banks,” Muti observed. “But yet we have a very poor connection. The connection is the only poor thing in the entire country.”

The CSO music director apologized for his dry voice, which he said he lost a few days prior. “It was from the air conditioning in Tenerife,” he explaned. “After a concert I was all wet and the car had terrible air conditioning. I’m healthy. I just cannot sing Aida.”

Muti’s relationship with the Schubert symphonies goes back to the 1980s when he was conducting in Vienna.

“After working many years with the Vienna Philharmonic and after I did the “Great” C major symphony with them, they were so impressed that they asked me to do the entire cycle of the Schubert symphonies [recorded on EMI]. I believe that even now I am the only conductor to record the entire cycle of the Schubert symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic.

“Then they said, ‘Maestro, you conducted Schubert so well, we want you to do the New Year’s Day concert.’ Because Schubert is the door to Johann Strauss. It’s the same sort of Vienna. So I did the first New Year’s concert in 1993 and the second in 1997, then 2000 and 2004. Then I decided that was enough smiling and laughing on the first of January.

“But it is interesting the fact that the Viennese believe—and rightly so—that Schubert expresses exactly the soul of Vienna. This nostalgia, this tenderness is typical of a society that feels an entire empire is starting to collapse little by little. This is what we hear.

“I mean, Schubert is too early for that but even then we feel there are signs of something that is changing in Europe. And with [Johann] Strauss we have really the end of this great empire. In his music and his waltzes you feel sometimes an almost tragic atmosphere.”

Along with Schubert’s ceaseless fount of melody, Muti find his sense of harmony inimitable. “In the piano music and in the vocal music you have this facility of melodies that seem to come out of his mind and his heart without any effort.

“And the sense of harmony is incredible. You can recognize Schubert immediately by the way he uses the harmonies under the melody. Many times Schubert surprises us with a modulation that is typical. He creates a world this is so simple and that is at the same time so complex.

“The system that he used is completely different from Schumann and even from Mendelssohn—who in some ways can be put together with Schubert since the nature of his lines are also so limpid and so clear and so apparently easy.

“Schubert will not be remembered for his counterpoint, like Haydn or even Mozart. Mozart was accused not to be very good at counterpoint but then he gave an answer in the last movement of the “Jupiter” symphony. Like Verdi. Poor Verdi all his life he was told he was not good at counterpoint but then at the end of his life he writes that last fugue in Falstaff.

“So Schubert will certainly not be remembered as a master of counterpoint But he will always be remembered for the quality of his melodies, which always seem so fresh and new.”

Schubert’s early symphonies have gotten a mixed press over the years, with the young composer seeming at times to struggle with formal elements (as in the Second Symphony, in which the large finale feels out of whack with the rest of the work). But Muti isn’t bothered by these youthful lapses.

“You know, asking this is like asking a lover if the nose of the girlfriend or boyfriend is too large or too small when they think everything is beautiful! Like with Verdi, I feel every note of Schubert is noble and aristocratic.

“Of course, the early symphonies don’t have the natural flow of the Third Symphony or the Fourth Symphony. The Fourth Symphony is a masterpiece. The Sixth Symphony is beautiful but doesn’t have the depth of the ‘Unfinished.’”

“So, yes, the symphonies can seem uneven. But hearing all the symphonies together will give the audience a chance to understand Schubert better. And second, it’s very, very, very important for the orchestra. Because Schubert is one of the composers that is like bread in the morning for an orchestra.”

Characteristically, Muti has no interest in the various projected completions of the “Unfinished” symphony or the many large-scale Schubert fragments like the Symphony in E major from 1825, which has been performed and recorded.

“I never put my hands in the scores of the composers that I conduct,” he said firmly. “Even in Schumann, I do it exactly the way it is written. I know there is a revision by Mahler. But you cannot put a wig or a mask on these composers. I think Schumann—even with all the weaknesses of his orchestration— should always be performed as written.”

“Schubert is a very difficult composer to perform. Because the style is tender and cannot be played like Brahms. Yet I insist that Brahms comes from Schubert. We think always that Brahms comes from a certain German tradition, and is played always with a sound that is heavy and fat, with a wrong concept of German music.

“The habit to play German music like Brahms in a fat way comes from the Nazi period. The fact that they wanted to use the music of Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner like a sort of testament for the ‘superior race.’ Like in the Fifth Symphony, they would take those allegandos, “Bah, bah, bah…Bah…BAH!” The message is Deutschland uber alles.”

“So at the time, [growing up] as a poor Southern Italian, I thought I should not belong to that group of people,” he laughed.” The way I do Brahms or Beethoven is in a certain way more Viennese.

“[Politics] was not in the mind of Beethoven. Beethoven wrote a symphony based on a cell of four notes. He is the great architect—able to write a symphony on four notes. Practically without a theme; just with a rhythmical cell. And that is what should be.

“In this respect, I think [historically informed ensembles] have brought some positive elements stylistically–to go back to a certain truth without ‘messages’ that belong to a period of our history that it is better to forget.”

Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Schubert’s Third and Fourth symphonies this week, along with the world premiere of Giovanni Sollima’s Antidotum Tarantulae XXI Concerto for Two Cellos and Orchestra featuring Yo-Yo Ma. Concert times are 8 p.m. Thursday, 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday. cso.org; 312-294-3000.

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One Response to “Muti talks Schubert; also Brahms and Beethoven”

  1. Posted Jan 25, 2014 at 6:01 pm by José

    István Kerstész also recorded the entire cycle of Schubert symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic for Decca.