Classical CD Reviews

James Levine: The MET Orchestra Live at Carnegie Hall (1991) = Works of WAGNER, BEETHOVEN & SCHUBERT – The MET Orch. – DGG (2 CDs)

James Levine makes “a triumphant return” to the MET after a two-year hiatus, a concert marked by poise and musical security in all principals.

Published on December 29, 2013

James Levine: The MET Orchestra Live at Carnegie Hall (1991) = Works of WAGNER, BEETHOVEN & SCHUBERT – The MET Orch. – DGG (2 CDs)

James Levine: The MET Orchestra Live at Carnegie Hall = WAGNER: Prelude, Act I of Lohengrin; BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58; Rondo a capriccio, Op. 129 “Rage Over a Lost Penny”; SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 9 in C Major, D. 944 “Great” – Evgeny Kissin, p./ The MET Orchestra/ James Levine – DGG B0019094-02 (2 CDs), 52:09, 54:13 [Distr. by Universal] (9/30/13) ****: 

Conductor James Levine (b 1943) returned to the podium of the MET Orchestra at Carnegie Hall 19 May 2013, having been absent for two years due to a spinal injury. Mounted on a motorized wheelchair, Levine – the ensemble’s music director since 1973 – had instituted a series of Carnegie Hall appearances by the MET Orchestra in 1991 in order to demonstrate the orchestra’s versatility in symphonic as well as opera repertory, simultaneously refining its playing many of the same composers’ scores while accompanying singers.

Levine begins his concert with an homage to Wagner’s bi-centennial, a radiant performance of  the 1850 Lohengrin Prelude to Act I.  Wagner depicts – through a carefully modulated crescendo – the descent of the Holy Grail to Earth, in the care of its Angelic host. The wonderful resonance of the MET strings and horns sets a blissful tone (in A Major) that well marks the musical spirit of the evening. Russian (or more properly, Israeli) virtuoso Evgeny Kissin (b. 1971), no longer the stormy prodigy but a mature artist, then performs Beethoven’s 1806 G Major Piano Concerto, most effectively.  The first movement Allegro moderato enjoys an expansive, exquisitely balanced rendition, truly the Apollinian side of the more epically declamatory Fifth Symphony, its partner in greatness. We might recall this elegantly expressive concerto served as Beethoven’s last vehicle for his own use before he retired from active pianistic performance. Kissin thrives on the unforced intimacy and lyricism of the opening movement, musing and expanding its improvisatory filigree.  When the twenty-six-year old Robert Schumann (in 1836) heard Mendelssohn play this music for the first time, he exclaimed, “I sat in my place without moving a muscle or even breathing.” The long-drawn coda perfectly reflects the degree of musical contentment in the apperception of beauty that this piece generates.

The loud staccato octaves of the Andante con moto open so fiercely we can feel the palpable thud it creates in the audience. The now-familiar conceit of Orpheus’ taming of the Furies then plays out, Kissin’s richly harmonized chords answered in ever-softened tones by the once malevolent orchestra, clearly remembering the influence of Gluck. The basses and cellos alone recall the ferment of the opening page, but they grumble pianissimo. Kissin expands upon his poetic cadenza that ends with a fateful trill that makes an almost dizzying approach to the witty Rondo (Vivace) with which this modestly scored concerto concludes. Beethoven has withheld the trumpets and drums for this playful movement, in which the divided violas express their own power to color the texture. With each thrust of the orchestral sforzandos the music propels forward on glistening sheets of lyrical ice or cascading crystal. The articulate resonance of the pizzicato and arco strings, in tandem with an opulent keyboard sound, project in lovely balance through the efforts of John Kerswell. The aroused enthusiasm of the New York audience demands an encore, so Kissin provides the rakish 1795 “Rage Over a Lost Groschen” by Beethoven, a coin which an actor in Tower of London characterizes as “the lowest coin I know.” A wonderfully apt Hungarian caprice, it caught the imagination of Robert Schumann as well, who delighted in its “lovable and most helpless rage.” Nothing helpless about Kissin’s white-hot performance, which set the audience’s ears on fire.

Levine makes his own fine points in another Robert Schumann (1837) discovery: Franz Schubert’s “Great” C Major Symphony (1826). Levine recorded this work in 1983 with the Chicago Symphony for DGG.  The Ninth Symphony had been “shelved” by Schubert and his brother as being “too heavy and turgid.” Here, Levine provides the C Major Symphony an impetus and momentum many will credit to Toscanini’s firm example. The swelling power of the MET winds and strings proves monumental, but no less lyrically alert and responsive for the breadth of the conception. The big pedal points in the horns, the declamations of the trumpets, all add to the colossal vitality of the whole.

The tragic Andante con moto Levine takes at a quick walking speed, a confident sojourn into melancholy thoughts. The constant shifts, major to minor, Schubert punctuates with tympani and resolute horns. The Winter’s Journey song-cycle seems nigh in the secondary tune and its dirge-like march.  A single funereal toll from the horn eventually questions the metaphysical purpose of this transient life, but it smiles in its agony. Nathan Hughes provides the affecting oboe solo that colors this movement within divine somberness. The last two movements restore our faith in songful human energies, especially the volatile power of the dance. Levine takes the repeat in the Scherzo, a guarantee of the music’s “heavenly length.” The plethora of musical and emotional energies unleashed in the Allegro vivace confirm Schubert’s vision of life through the vibrant testimony of James Levine’s enduring status as master of his MET domain.

I wish to dedicate this review to the memory of Natalie (Kolinsky) Lemco, my dear Mother, who left us this December 27.

—Gary Lemco

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