<i> Times Music Critic</i>

The Philadelphia Orchestra under Riccardo Muti is a pianissimo orchestra. The quiet sounds shimmered with transparent delicacy Sunday night at Ambassador Auditorium.

The Philadelphia Orchestra under Muti is a mezzo-forte orchestra. The moderate sounds surged and rumbled, with mellow resonance and nice, lean definition.

The Philadelphia Orchestra under Muti is a fortissimo orchestra. The mighty outbursts rattled the roof and split the eardrums.

Don’t blame the conductor and the orchestra for the discomfort, however. Blame the acoustics in a relatively intimate hall that cannot seem to accommodate massive symphonic statements.


Given the inherent sonic quirks, one had to make a few mental adjustments Sunday on behalf of the visiting Pennsylvanians.

Faure’s “Pelleas et Melisande” suite, which opened the program, posed no problem. The sensual impact here is predicated on understatement. Muti made the most of subtle colors, dramatic restraint and melodic insinuation. Lyrical refinement was the expressive key.

In the “Firebird” suite, which followed, the maestro caressed Stravinsky’s bleakly exotic indulgences suavely and with obvious affection, delineated the macabre accents with piquant verve and, in the grotesque attacks, invoked cataclysms.

The maestro sustained tension, from quaint cantilena to raucous climax, with a firm hand and a poetic mind. The performance wasn’t always comfortable, but it certainly was exciting.


Then, after intermission, came Brahms’ Fourth Symphony--and another revelation.

Muti isn’t the sort of conductor who likes his Brahms gemuetlich . He doesn’t allow the sentiment to slobber. He doesn’t dawdle, doesn’t gush, doesn’t wallow, doesn’t even sigh. He keeps the rhetoric neat, taut and graceful.

He favors brisk speeds, to be sure. But he never confuses propulsion with haste, and he always allows for flexibility within the established tempo patterns.

His Brahms--fundamentally heroic and aggressive--is a young man’s Brahms, perhaps a modern man’s Brahms. It is poignant, even when it isn’t quintesentially romantic.


There are, of course, other ways. Still, Muti’s way makes good aesthetic sense, and his attentive charges play for him with spectacular clarity, precision and brilliance.

Even when loud is too loud, the Philadelphia Orchestra remains a great orchestra.

The expected standing ovations produced an unexpected encore: the Notturno, Opus 70, No. 1 of Giuseppe Martucci. The same piece, incidentally, was scheduled to open the second program by the Philadelphians at Ambassador Monday night.