Chicago SO/Muti, Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Work has clearly continued on the acoustics of the Royal Festival Hall over the last three months for it now sounds strikingly different from its reopening back in June. Mollified are the fiercely bright upper resonances, but at the seeming cost of a certain drying out of the overall ambience. Since its days under Solti, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has always tended to be dominated by its trombones. At moments in this first of two programmes under Riccardo Muti, they sounded positively rasping.

Yet the greatly enhanced depth of the lower sonorities remains, as was instantly apparent from the cavernous opening bars of Tchaikovsky's fateful Pathétique symphony. Admittedly, this was a reading that took its time to focus. Lingering too lovingly on its second subject, Muti marginally failed to grip the strongly contrasting sections of the opening movement in a unified sweep.

But the march-scherzo accumulated real excitement in its precision and drive, while the sheer blackness of sense and sound with which the unprecedented slow finale ebbed away was not to be easily forgotten.

The second half comprised a further acoustic test, for the sober neo-baroque scoring of Hindemith's 1938 suite Nobilissima Visione could hardly sound more different from the delirious incandescence of Scriabin's Poema ekstasa. The Hindemith – too rarely heard these days – came up particularly well in a performance that balanced its bluff extroversion and inner melancholy, and achieved a noble exaltation in the culminating passacaglia.

The Scriabin, dating from 1908, remains a more ambiguous proposition – and not only because the young Stravinsky so wickedly nicked its most striking new harmonies for his own Firebird two years later. Once its sequential motifs and swooning sonorities are established, all it can do for 20 minutes is to go round and round, getting more and more steamy until the final orgasm. Of course, Muti and the Chicago SO delivered it with thrilling sheen and force – though at the climax, the trombones managed to blot out even the chiming high trumpets that are meant to cut through the texture.

After which, by way of unlikely encore, Muti offered Schubert's gently yearning Second Entr'acte for Rosamunde, most tenderly done, but oh, so slow.

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