Music; Philharmonia / Riccardo Muti RFH, London

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The Independent Culture
It was appropriate that Riccardo Muti should mark his first Philharmonia concert in years with Cherubini's D minor Missa Solemnis. Everything about the music suits him: its melodic distinctiveness, dramatic thrust, operatic exuberance and wealth of contrasts. Although revised in 1822, this Mass actually pre-dates its two more familiar stable-mates: it was originally composed in 1811, two years before Verdi was born.

Length-wise, it rivals Beethoven's great Missa Solemnis and, while there are a few points of contact between the two works (most notably the solemn, quiet string-writing prior to a thrilling "Et resurrexit"), there's no real contest in terms of quality.

Beethoven was, of course, a great admirer of Cherubini and one can imagine his positive reaction to, say, the sweet, dialogic nature of the Kyrie's orchestral introduction, its ornate embellishments and the rigorous counterpoint thereafter. Busy fugal writing is in plentiful supply, but most striking of all is the Beethovenian "Crucifixus", so dark, fluid and trance- like, perhaps even mirroring the Moonlight Sonata's Adagio sostenuto (1801).

Muti's lyrical reading made for characteristically expressive string lines, especially in the Gloria, while the more assertive episodes were played, and sung, with real panache. The soloists were all pretty good, soprano Rosemary Joshua and tenor Kurt Streit being the best of the bunch, although mezzo Ruby Philogene offered some fine work and bass-baritone Michael George grew stronger as the piece progressed. The one notable vocal blemish was "Et incarnatus", a beautiful sextet in which someone - I couldn't quite work out who - threw the ensemble off pitch; but it was a brief imperfection in an otherwise impressive performance. The Philharmonia Chorus was on excellent form and Muti's evident love for the score was a joy to behold.

Still, it is a very long work and could easily have justified an evening to itself. As it happens, there was a generous "starter" in Haydn's eventful Symphony No 48, the "Maria Theresia". Again, Muti was truly "on the case" (his eyes and hands seemed consistently alert to every semiquaver). Winds and brass excelled, but Muti's predilection for vibrant string-playing paid highest dividends in the Adagio, which was granted an Italianate songfulness. The Menuet was buoyant and keenly inflected, with a finely- graded account of the relatively dark trio, while the finale - if just a mite too fast - featured a powerfully surging development.

Important repeats were observed, and Muti's flamboyant rostrum gestures incorporated downward lunges in search of a strengthened bass-line, standing immobile whenever a phrase was "echoed" piano and the odd theatrical leap. Orchestral execution was first-rate; and it was nice to see the players themselves applauding Muti with such vigour and affection.