Boston Symphony Orchestra/Levine Renée Fleming – Berg, Strauss & Mahler 4

Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op.6
Four Last Songs
Symphony No.4

Renée Fleming (soprano)

Boston Symphony Orchestra
James Levine

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 13 February, 2010
Venue: Boston Symphony Hall

James Levine. Photograph: Michael LutchThis concert offered a magical grouping of works by three highly compatible composers. Alban Berg greatly admired Mahler, and the Opus 6 Orchestral Pieces reveal the powerful impression that the latter’s symphonies made on him. Strauss and Mahler were congenial colleagues who dominated Austro-German musical life, and Strauss’s “Four Last Songs” resonate with Mahler’s influence.

In a program note, James Levine says, “I’m crazy about Berg’s Opus 6 Three Pieces for Orchestra; I do them whenever I can.” And in this compelling performance, Levine effectively communicated his great love for Berg and this masterwork, the only one of the composer’s published output written for a large orchestra without a soloist. Each of the three pieces – ‘Präludium’ (Prelude), ‘Reigen’ (Round Dance) and ‘Marsch’ (March) – has a strong, highly individualized character and great complexity of texture. Levine’s reading succeeded in giving a wonderful clarity to the remarkably dense score, bringing out all the romantic overtones and revealing just how ravishingly beautiful Berg’s music can be.

Renée Fleming. © 1999-2005, Prashant SehgalFollowing the Berg, Renée Fleming (looking radiant in a flowing, emerald green gown) brought her creamy, beautiful soprano to Strauss’s subtle yet remarkably accessible “Four Last Songs”, his final music, overflowing with wonderful details, not only in how the words are set, but in fine instrumental touches. Occasional balance problems affected the performance of the first two songs, ‘Frühling’ (Spring) and ‘September’, but soloist and orchestra were perfectly matched in the final two, ‘Beim Schlafengehen’ (On Going to Sleep) and ‘Im Abendrot’ (At Sunset), in which the Boston Symphony’s full and agreeably warm instrumental sound complemented Fleming’s great sensitivity and attention to detail. Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe’s playing, full of beautifully sustained legato, was especially impressive in the extended violin solo linking the second and third stanzas of ‘Beim Schlafengehen’. Overall, this was a heartfelt and elegant performance.

After intermission Fleming returned as the soloist in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. Like the Strauss songs (and virtually every one of Mahler symphonies) the piece explores the relationship between life and death, with the finale in the form of a song about the innocent pleasures of life in heaven. Levine gave a beautifully paced and uniquely satisfying reading of Mahler’s congenial work, and the orchestra responded with some exceptionally fine playing. The detail and clarity were very well drawn, with solos perfectly highlighted, especially Lowe’s performance of the eerie violin solo in the scherzo. The BSO strings were especially lovely in the songful moments leading up to the huge explosion of sound near the end of the third movement. As in the Strauss songs, Fleming’s soprano produced a warm, vibrant tone in the spacious account of the finale.

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