Muti: 1812, Boléro, Les Préludes

Riccardo Muti / Philadelphia Orchestra

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Muti: 1812, Boléro, Les Préludes Review

by James Leonard

In a contest to decide which is the best recording Riccardo Muti made with the Philadelphia Orchestra while he was the music director from 1980 through 1992, this 1982 release might take the prize. Then 41, Muti was at his first peak as a conductor, and his performances here are superbly controlled with lucid balances, a clear beat, tight attacks, clean releases, and a firm grasp of form. The Philadelphia, just coming off a slump during the long decline of Eugene Ormandy, was determined to demonstrate that it was still one of the great American orchestras, and its playing here is strong and supple, full and hard, lovely and lethal; the musicians seem to delight in showing off before their new music director. Their relationship soured after Muti became music director at La Scala in 1986, and their later recordings preserved playing audibly petulant in its deliberate sloppiness and crudeness. But here, at least, the orchestra was still on its best behavior, and these performances are confident and convincing.

In a contest to decide which are the three worst pieces to couple together on a single disc -- Ravel's Bolèro, Liszt's Les Préludes, and Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture would be strong nominees -- this release might also take the prize. Although superbly performed, this music is so banal, so bathetic, and so bombastic that listening to it all the way through could be detrimental to the listener's aural health. The fact that EMI's very early digital sound is a bit harsh at the climaxes doesn't make things any easier in music that is essentially all climax.