Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique and Lélio. Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Riccardo Muti. CSO Resound.
Leonard Bernstein memorably called Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” “the first psychedelic symphony in history.” The metaphor of a musical trip perfectly described Bernstein’s extravagant approach to the feverish passions of the score.
Riccardo Muti’s new recording of the “Fantastique” with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra offers a mellower journey. It is the latest release from the orchestra’s in-house label and was edited from his inaugural subscription concerts as music director in 2010. Muti gives a veritable master class in orchestral finesse, favoring elegance, subtlety and refinement over bombast and excess. Compared with his 1985 Philadelphia Orchestra recording, his interpretation has become less ostentatiously operatic, with greater concern for symphonic unity than the piling on of effect. His inspired account may not offer the brash exhibitionism of Bernstein or the risky thrill-seeking of Charles Munch, but it unfolds with clarity of vision and exudes authority and conviction.
The first two movements are, if anything, understated. With aristocratic poise and polish, Muti holds back the music’s nervous agitation for a more decorous presentation of Berlioz’s dream visions. Muti’s reading of the pastoral third movement is one of the most quietly devastating on record; with its exquisitely shaped woodwind lines and ethereal strings, the music attains a serene beauty darkened by existential disquiet. Muti reserves the psychedelic fireworks for the final two movements, which are vividly theatrical and sweeping in power. Yet the Italian maestro never indulges in exaggeration.
Muti pairs the “Fantastique” with its mostly forgotten sequel, “Lélio,” a theatrical work that was intended by Berlioz to be performed on the same program as its more famous companion. It was a wish rarely fulfilled even in the composer’s lifetime. Pierre Boulez has observed that “Lélio” is really an amalgam of separately composed “bottom drawer pieces” linked by narration. Muti’s forces, including a scenery-chewing Gérard Depardieu as the narrator, perform as if a masterpiece were at hand. But their efforts cannot rescue this turgid melodrama from justified obscurity.
Ivan Ilić plays Morton Feldman. Paraty.
Ivan Ilić, a Serbian-American pianist living in Paris, records on a small label and chooses unusual repertory. A release last year, “The Transcendentalist,” brought together music by Alexander Scriabin, Morton Feldman and John Cage around the influence of the Transcendentalist authors of New England. That disc was the first part of a trilogy devoted to Feldman’s music, a set completed by his latest release, a recording of Feldman’s “For Bunita Marcus,” a 70-minute piano cycle completed in 1985, just two years before the American composer’s death.
“In my art,” Feldman said, “I feel myself dying very, very SLOWLY.” Listeners often have the same sensation. This is music constructed from the pointillistic repetition of tiny motifs, with minute transformations, for what can feel like an eternity. Ilić hits upon that hypnotic quality. In a narrative booklet essay, he traces how he surrenders to the arc of what Feldman is doing: After about 12 or 13 minutes, he writes, “Feldman and I have a pact.” The experience is likely not for everyone, but for those willing to make the same pact, Ilić paces the journey beautifully.
What Ilić likely did not know when he began this recording was that the work’s dedicatee would put “For Bunita Marcus” into a devastatingly different frame of reference. Bunita Marcus was a student of Feldman’s at SUNY Buffalo, where she received a Ph.D. in composition in 1981, and she went on to play a significant role in the 1980s New York music world. In recent years, she has talked about being a victim of childhood rape. Last year, she started a Twitter account that included incendiary allegations about Feldman, calling him a “sick person,” and worse. “The day I met Feldman,” she wrote, “my life as a gifted musician ended.”
It’s a murky postscript to a major composer’s career and a difficult one to process accurately. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to hear this piece now without at least considering the complexities of the relationship it commemorates.