at Orchestra Hall

May 4 and 11

One might expect Sir Georg Solti to fade quietly away during his remaining two seasons. He is gradually reducing the number of weeks he’s performing here, but qualitatively–at least if this season’s final concerts are a preview–the best of Solti’s music making may be yet to come.

Expectations for the remainder of his Chicago tenure have not been high. No new pieces were slated for his recent appearances here–instead, three weeks of standard repertoire, primarily television tapings and dress rehearsals for recording sessions and this fall’s European tour (Solti’s last as music director). Included in the first week were the Schumann Konzertstuck for four horns (with four soloists from the orchestra), the Villa-Lobos Bachiana brasileira no. 1, and the Beethoven Symphony no. 3, the Eroica; planned for the second week was an all-Beethoven program, the Violin Concerto (with soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter) and Symphony no. 5. The third-week season finale–which I am not reviewing here–was a single work, Berlioz’s grand cantata, The Damnation of Faust.

There’s nothing new or adventurous about this repertoire (save the Villa-Lobos, which Solti did not direct). But because of Solti’s age and status in the conducting world–76 and second to none–to say nothing of his temperament and reputation for redoing scores he already knows, well, who’s to complain? Besides, since it remains to be seen whether we’ll be in for a musical drought under Daniel Barenboim, who wouldn’t relish hearing the old boy and the orchestra blaze away on some standards one last time?

Surprise. A complete about-face for Solti on, of all things, Beethoven metronome markings. Keep in mind the fact that Solti was one of the slowest Beethoven conductors on the planet–the epitome of the conductor who likes to overromanticize Beethoven. Solti always did it with great style and conviction, but basically he was in complete disagreement with mainline scholarship on performance practices for Beethoven. Who cares? This was Solti. To even ask him about these issues was akin to asking the pope about ecclesiastical authority and his taste in clothes.

The Schumann Konzertstuck is usually played as the uninspired masterpiece of an uninspired Romantic; but it’s a good excuse to spotlight four members of an orchestral horn section. The piece has been done here a number of times for that purpose, most notably in a very uninspired and ponderous Barenboim/CSO recording over a decade ago. Much to my surprise, the piece really sprang to life under Solti, who gave the work a heroic spirit (Solti apparently hears this, quite rightly, as a little Eroica imitation). His sprightly tempo rescued it from sounding as trite and ponderous as it has in virtually every other performance given here. The soloists, Gail Williams, Norman Schweikert, Richard Oldberg, and Daniel Gingrich (principal horn Dale Clevenger played in the accompanying orchestra, a gracious touch), were all up to the occasion; they missed only a note here and there, a considerable feat given how fast Solti took the work.

Although it was nice to hear the Villa-Lobos Bachiana brasileira no. 1, the first of that Brazilian composer’s nine tributes to Johann Sebastian Bach, the piece was badly out of place at a CSO concert–which, after all, exists to spotlight symphonic and not chamber music. It is obviously much cheaper to prepare and present a chamber work than a work requiring larger forces, which may account for this unfortunate trend in performing-arts organizations. In this case, eight cellos are required (ten were used), and the piece can be performed without a conductor (hence less work for Solti). The piece was mostly well played and was given a proper Latin flavor, but there were pitch problems. And although John Sharp’s sound was always large and beautiful, some of his colleagues could not be heard distinctly in the fugue that concludes the work. It would be great to hear more Villa-Lobos from the CSO, but there are plenty of orchestral pieces to choose from, most of which have never been heard here.

Virtually anything one can say about Beethoven’s Eroica (“heroic”) Symphony seems trivial compared to the power of the music itself. We tend to take the piece so much for granted that it is difficult–if not impossible–for us to fully appreciate the Romantic revolution in music ushered in by this piece, so grand in scope and expression that it literally burst open symphonic form as it had been known, a blow from which music never fully recovered. (Perhaps that’s part of the reason that the most enduring symphonies from the later 19th century were those of Brahms, who reincorporated classical forms into the symphony.)

The Eroica is the fourth work in which Beethoven included the popular theme from his ballet Prometheus, and the first symphony of his–or anyone else’s–to be fully programmatic and have extramusical associations. Beethoven had already penned his dedication page to Napoleon when news reached Vienna that Napoleon had proclaimed himself emperor, which Beethoven could not endure. In the end, the work was dedicated to Prince Lobkovitz, who paid Beethoven for the honor. But the dedication on the first edition stated that the work was “composed to celebrate the memory of a great man,” usually taken to mean any man, or every man, who triumphs against the forces of destiny–or to mean a titan who wrestles with the gods, as Beethoven himself was often characterized later.

Eroica performances tend to go in one of two directions. They may be blatantly romantic–the buildups take forever, the climaxes are overexploited, and the funeral march is taken so slowly you could drive a truck through the phrases. The other trend, far more recent, is to take Beethoven’s own tempo indications and metronome markings to heart, to perform the work on period instruments, and to end up with a very dull and lifeless reading with no dynamic contrast or heroic feeling whatsoever. (These things may well be considered “inauthentic” by many early-music specialists.)

Although in the past Solti’s approach was clearly romantic, in these performances (and in the recording that will follow), he has dared to completely change his approach. He offers a performance that combines the advantages of both the usual approaches: it’s fully and unabashedly romantic, with plenty of heroic spirit, but he takes it at a much faster clip. (It’s still a bit shy of the metronome markings but in the ballpark, and in some instances almost twice as fast as past Solti performances.) Seldom, if ever, has so much passion gone into this music while the work’s structure remained so crystal-clear. The contrasts and climaxes became all the more pronounced and shocking with the faster tempi. This was an Eroica full of surprises that seemed timeless, that gave you a sense of the hair-raising disbelief that its first listeners must have experienced almost two centuries ago. Since this will be one of the major works on the European tour, Europe is in for quite a surprise.

Although Beethoven’s metronome markings were thrown out the window for the following week’s performances of the Violin Concerto, this was still a performance full of revelations, thanks to the unusual approach of German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. Mutter’s sound, despite its defects, is refreshingly unlike any of the dozens of Juilliard School soloists we hear by the sackful. Mutter has a very shrill, medium-sized sound that tends to be slightly under pitch. Her technique is solid, but it is her sound variety and musicianship that stand out. She can produce a big, wavery vibrato in one phrase, but then immediately contrast this with a straight, pure tone, particularly in quieter passages. Every phrase she plays is packed with musical meaning and lyricism, quite rare in this age of the mindless virtuoso. The double stops of the first movement cadenza were done with great attention to the separate lyricism of each voice, and her sound in the lower register was made up of gorgeous low, straight tones.

Pitch was Mutter’s biggest problem, which became more pronounced as the concerto went on, since she did not stop to tune after the first movement, her only chance to do so. That was regrettable, because she ran into some real trouble with pitch in the upper register of the slow movement but could do nothing but play on into the third-movement finale. By that point, her instrument was severely flat. It was a rather humid evening, but Mutter could easily have tuned her instrument slightly sharp to compensate for her own tendency to be under pitch, much as singers learn to do. (A voice doesn’t sound the same inside of oneself as it does from the outside, and singers–good ones, anyway–learn to compensate for that difference.)

Much credit must also go to Solti for the restraint he showed in these performances. Normally Solti tends to drown out a soloist in this concerto and be rather perfunctory in his accompaniment, but he obviously has a lot of respect for Mutter. He offered quite a nuanced, well-balanced reading that was totally consistent with Mutter’s interpretation, slow tempi and all. The brass was restrained, the winds could be clearly heard, and there was an extraordinary balance and dialogue between conductor and soloist.

After intermission the bright television spotlights were turned on for a taping of the Beethoven Fifth. A Solti on Beethoven special will air next year on PBS; the maestro, sitting at a piano, will analyze the work and then perform it “live” with the Chicago Symphony. Unlike tapings in the late 70s, which held the audience until mistakes were “covered,” two separate performances were taped for this.

Solti, who went to a lectern set up at the front of the stage instead of to his usual podium, explained what was going on and “chatted” with the audience about Beethoven. He said that he was beginning to experiment, for the first time in his long career, with Beethoven’s own metronome markings. “I wanted to try it–just once–to see,” he said. “You then tell me at the end if it works or not”–a highbrow but effective substitute for the neon applause sign.

I must say that the ferocity of both the speed and intensity with which Solti took the first movement made my heart skip a few beats. Yes, there were some late entrances here and there (which I’m sure can be patched up for TV), but this was a performance that approached the cutting edge for the entire piece, and if it slipped over now and then, who cares? I frankly couldn’t believe my ears–it’s so rare for anyone, let alone Solti, to take chances today in the concert hall.

The middle movements were no less daring, although they were full of nuances, of subtlety and color that were brought out in much sharper relief with the new tempi. Although the brass was a bit overdone in the finale, the ending has never erupted forth in more triumph or glory.

These performances, and the subsequent TV special, raise quite a dilemma for Solti. I don’t know whether he inflicted it upon himself knowingly or unknowingly, but I find it delightful. Three years ago he began rerecording Beethoven symphonies in digital sound. The Fifth and Ninth symphonies were recorded first (in October 1986), and a couple of others have followed. The disc containing the Fourth and Fifth has just been released on London/Decca Records, and both works are done quite slowly. Now, in midcycle, Solti radically changes his mind about Beethoven metronome markings. (“That is the right way to do it, and it was my best yet,” he told me backstage after this Fifth.) It’s too late for a recall, and it’s very unlikely that any of these symphonies will be recorded a third time anytime soon, given the enormous expense involved. The solution? Simple. Stay on a few more years and get all of them right, maestro.