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Chailly: still an apprentice, but already a major conductor

Riccardo Chailly is, at 32 years old, already a major name on the international conducting circuit. The Lyric Opera of Chicago introduced him to the United States when he was only 21. By now he has worked in most of the major opera houses around the world, including the Metropolitan. He has recorded for CBS Masterworks, Philips, and London (which is now his principal label). He has guest-conducted many of the finest orchestras of the world. Currently he holds the title of music director of the Radio Symphony Orchestra, Berlin, and has just ended a term as principal guest conductor of the London Philha rmonic. In 1988 he will take over the legendary Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. He also made his New York Philharmonic debut last week.

Mr. Chailly shows signs of exceptional talent. He is still young, still learning repertoire, still searching for his musical voice and profile. His career has been built primarily on important podiums rather than in one place outside the musical mainstream. Therefore, he has had to do his apprenticeship -- with all the risk-taking and mistake-making that implies -- very much in the public eye.

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Perhaps this inefficent apprenticeship accounts for the unevenness of his New York Philharmonic concert. There were obvious problems with sound and ensemble, doubtless due to unfamiliarity with this orchestra and the unruly acoustics of Avery Fisher Hall. And his program choice was awkward: the US premi`ere of Sylvano Bussotti's ``Die Florenze'' (from ``Il Catalogo `e Questo III'') and Prokofiev's Third Symphony shared a tonal grayness, and neither piece bore any relationship to Beethoven's Fourth Piano

Concerto (with Andr'e Watts).

The Bussotti -- dense, incessantly dissonant, and clattery -- hardly justified Chailly's apparent faith in it. In the Beethoven, Chailly apparently wanted the full Philharmonic to sound like a chamber group in the first two movements, while Mr. Watts tackled it in his familiar, large-scale, virtuosic fashion. The final movement found the two artists in more compatible form, but they never truly presented a comfortable give-and-take.

Chailly's Prokofiev suffered from untidy playing and, more seriously, from an utter lack of the rich, voluptuous sounds demanded by this score. One might say he does not understand Prokofiev, except that his recent recording of the cantata ``Alexander Nevsky'' with the Cleveland Orchestra is superb (London digital, 410 164-1 [LP]; 410 164-2 [CD]). Chailly, with eloquent support from the orchestra, exploits every coloristic possibility in the score and communicates the dramatic images in the music with t elling accuracy. He allows veteran Russian mezzo Irina Arkhipova to make the most of her music. The recorded sound is especially full (so good, in fact, that it exposes the very American pronunciation of Russian words by the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus).

Chailly's unevenness is not limited to the concert hall. A few months ago, a recording of Tchaikovsky's ``Francesca da Rimini'' and ``Romeo and Juliet'' was released, again with the Cleveland (London digital 414 159-1 [LP]; 414 159-2 [CD]), that lacked drama and a sense of belief in the music. On the other hand, a Tchaikovsky Fifth with the Vienna Philharmonic (London digital LDR-71033 [LP]; 410 232-2 [CD]) demonstrates how accomplished a Tchaikovskian he can be -- a volatile yet brooding account that e xploits the unique burnished tones of the Viennese ensemble.

The young conductor has shown a special flair in opera. From his debut performances of Offenbach's ``Tales of Hoffmann'' at the Met, it was clear that he understood what making opera in a big theater is all about, and that he was a thoughtful, alert partner to his singers. This quality also emerged on several of his earlier opera recordings, though on the new Giordano ``Andrea Ch'enier,'' with an all-star cast headed by Luciano Pavarotti, it is puzzlingly absent (London digital 410 177-1 [3-LP]; 410 117 -2 [2-CD]).

The recording sessions were held at various times over five years, which may account for the lack of continuity. But it doesn't explain Chailly's unidiomatic way with Giordano's evocative opera, despite excellent playing from the National Philharmonic. Pavarotti sounds fine, though his voice is not weighty enough for the title role. Baritone Leo Nucci is equally overtaxed by the role of G'erard, while Montserrat Caball'e as Maddalena is not in good voice at all. The best moment on the recording is Chris ta Ludwig's singing of old Madelon.

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Happily, Chailly's talents are brilliantly displayed on his very latest operatic release, Stravinsky's ``The Rake's Progress'' (London digital 411 644-1 [3-LP]; 411 644-2 [2-CD]). This set is distinguished by the imposing Nick Shadow of Samuel Ramey -- exceptional singing in an otherwise vocally uneven set. Carolyn Pope's Ann Truelove is tenuous, while Philip Langridge offers a well characterized but vocally strained Tom Rakewell. Chailly allows Stravinsky's neoclassical score to breathe with a theatric al thrill one rarely hears in this music.

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