James Levine conducts Boulez and Mozart at Weill Recital Hall

Mémoriale (‘…explosante-fixe…’ Originel)
Dérive 1
Improvisation sur Mallarmé I
Improvisation sur Mallarmé II
Divertimento in B flat, K287

Jo Ellen Miller (soprano)

The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra Chamber Ensemble
James Levine

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 6 December, 2009
Venue: Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York City

James LevineJames Levine conducting Boulez? Don’t look so surprised.

Levine has been a long-time champion of contemporary music. As music director of the Munich Philharmonic he conducted European debuts of major works by Charles Wuorinen, John Harbison and other prominent composers, and he has recorded works by Elliott Carter, Gunther Schuller and John Cage with the Chicago Symphony for Deutsche Grammophon.

Levine drew surprising contrast between Mémoriale, dating from 1985 and written in memory of Ensemble InterContemporain flautist Laurence Beauregard, and Dérive 1, composed in 1986. Both works run just-under seven minutes and are written for small ensembles. Mémoriale was spun out in what seemed to be a single long phrase; the solo flute line, played with shimmering beauty by Stefan Ragnar Höskulosson, unfolds in a succession of sustained notes and melodic gestures rendered with trills, flutter-tonguing, and exploiting the sonorities particularly of the instrument’s lower range, as the ensemble accompanies with gestures that alternate between percussive and pizzicato scintillations and long, legato chords and sustained pitches. Dérive 1 plays quite differently: a procession of almost equal-length pitches and chords, sometimes elaborated with filigreed, almost ornamental figures. The players’ and Levine’s attention to dynamics and balances brought substantial character, color and contrast to these two short works.

Jo Ellen Miller. Photograph: joellenmiller.comThe two “Improvisations sur Mallarmé”, settings of “Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui” and “Une dentelle s’abolit”, were composed in 1957, and represent Boulez’s first attempt to incorporate improvisatory material into his works. A second, more heavily orchestrated version of “Improvisation sur Mallarmé I” would find its way into “Pli selon pli”; Levine and the ensemble performed the first version, for soprano, percussion and harp. Again, Levine invoked strong differentiation between the two works by a composer in transition – the first improvisation almost seeming an appendix to Boulez’s breakthrough work, “Le Marteau sans Maître”, the second Improvisation hinting at alternately crystalline and complex textures that would come to fruition in his chamber and orchestral works of the 1960s and 1970s. Jo Ellen Miller’s bright timbre and dynamic control suits this music and the texts very well; the performances also led this listener to conclude that these works fare better in the recital hall than in a larger venue and within the symphonic frame of “Pli selon pli”.

The second half of the program could not have contrasted more strongly. Levine opted to present Mozart’s B flat Divertimento, originally intended for string quartet and horns, with an ensemble of eighteen string players (6 first violins, 5 seconds, 4 violas, 2 cellos and 1 double bass). An additional cello and bass would have probably compensated for a bass-shy sound, and the dry acoustics of Weill Recital Hall exacerbated some intonation issues in the violins (especially in the first movement) and a couple of horn clinkers, but overall the performance was a merry and tuneful jaunt very much in the ‘old school’ tradition. There was nothing in the way of period-instrument practise here; Levine conjured phrasing that combined the clarity of George Szell with the nuance of Josef Krips, and elicited some particularly incisive contrasts in the charming Theme and Variations, with some beautiful melodic playing in the Adagio.

The audience, which filled the hall to near capacity, showed equal and robust appreciation for both halves of the concert, and other than a few coughs here and there was among the quieter groups with which I have shared an evening of music all season.

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