Why bother?

Why bother?
I wouldn’t have even bothered with this CD – Decca is far from the esteemed label it once was 20 years ago. But since the Chicago Symphony has just announced this conductor will replace Riccardo Muti as its music director, I thought I’d give it a listen and see what ill-conceived decision they’re making this time.
 
I started with Debussy’s Jeux, one of my favorite of his works and not easy to bring off. All the stops and starts, endless rubato – it’s hard to hold together and even harder to make it danceable. Makela succeeds at the former (although I’m sure the orchestra can play this score in their sleep without much assistance from him) but fails at the latter. Makela favors atmosphere over rhythm. It’s leisurely and languid to the point of blandness – at least until the last section, in passages marked Joyeux, where he suddenly finds a spark of life. But by then it’s too late. The piece refuses to take flight and wouldn’t be very inspiring for a choreographer to do anything with.
 
And this Faun is one to sleep through. Right from the get go, the opening flute solo sounds a bit queasy. (Oddly the booklet doesn’t even bother to name him/her, and perhaps we can understand why after hearing it. I presume it’s principal flutist Vincent Lucas.) He hurries through the opening to get it all out in one breath, and in so doing, can’t even manage a true legato. It sounds clunky. Worse, he plays with a weird, slow, pulsating vibrato which is simply dreadful. I usually like the characteristic French flute sound – light, clear, glistening (ala Rampal) – but not this.
 
As the afternoon lingers on, there is some sumptuous string sound, which is lovely, but the woodwind playing is concerning. (To be fair, Makela’s funereal tempo doesn’t help.) Frankly, I’m shocked the Orchestre de Paris settles for this kind of playing today. Or perhaps they’re simply content doing what little Makela can rouse from them and not much more.
 
As to Petroushka, it’s efficient, ultra-refined and prettified. Articulation and accents are smooth and uninteresting, and real muscle to bow on string is missing. Tempos are lackadaisical, dynamics are polite, and characterization is practically non-existent. This simply isn’t ballet music. I hear some weird highlighting though, courtesy of the Decca engineers in the control room (no surprise there). The trumpet and piano, for example, seem unnaturally forward, almost from a different acoustic altogether. Yes it’s subtle, but why do it at all? Does Makela really need help handling balances?
 
As to the production itself, the booklet curiously makes no mention of the orchestra or their hot-stuff conductor. (And as noted above, not even the solo flutist in Faun is named.) But they do manage to provide 3 close-up pictures of Makela with that feigned ecstasy smile on his face. (Surely another expression is called for at some point.) This is Decca – they’re banking on that pretty face, not his baton. Just look at who gets star billing on the front cover. (Hint: it’s not Stravinsky or Debussy.) 

I find it interesting Makela is this orchestra’s music director, so this is apparently the sound they’re all going for. I wonder if their audience likes it. And now Chicago is hiring him? From the thunderously dynamic Solti of 30 years ago to the superficial, ultra-refined Makela – what has happened to this once magnificent orchestra? I understand the desire to find someone young(er) and fresh(er) to replace the decrepit Muti, but … well, let’s hope Makela is better live than in a recording session. 
 
In the end, this is just another slick, run-of-the-mill orchestral release from a major label. It isn’t awful. It isn’t horrible. It’s merely efficient, anonymous and completely devoid of character. There is not a single solitary distinguishing characteristic which would identify the orchestra, the conductor or the record label. Or even the composers for that matter. And it doesn’t get much more boring than that.  

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